The ObamaCare debacle marks the return of 'President Passerby'

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Obama's been seen by some as stepping over the stickier situations.
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Obama's been seen by some as stepping over the stickier situations.

Last spring, President Barack Obama maintained plausible deniability throughout the Benghazi, IRS, and Department of Justice snooping scandals, letting most of the blame fall on the people below him.

He was dubbed "President Passerby" by members of the press, and accused by critics of either lying about his level of involvement in the scandals or being woefully uninformed about what was happening in his own administration.

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Now, as more details emerge about the ObamaCare rollout fiasco, it looks like the hands-off president is back. Yesterday, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius talked to CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who asked her when the president was aware of the problems that HealthCare.gov, the hub for the Affordable Care Act's online exchanges, was having before the launch.

Sebelius claims Obama only knew about the glitches "the first couple of days" after the Oct. 1 launch date. "But not before that?" Gupta asked. "No, sir," Sebelius replied.

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President Obama was, of course, mired in the drama of the government shutdown and debt ceiling fight when the ObamaCare exchanges launched. But the Affordable Care Act is his signature piece of legislation, something that he has been vehemently defending for years against an onslaught of Republican doom-saying.

It would stand to reason that he would want to know if HealthCare.gov — the public face of ObamaCare — was having serious technical problems before it was rolled out.

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Sebelius' claim that Obama was in the dark has the National Journal's Ron Fournier wondering what, exactly, is going on:

That is either a lie, which would be unforgivable. Or it reveals an unfathomable lack of oversight. For a breakdown of this magnitude to go undetected by Sebelius and her boss, there must be severe gaps in the management systems of the Obama administration that any first-year MBA student could ferret out. Even Democrats are asking, how could they let this happen? [National Journal]

Some Democrats have lauded Obama for defending who they say is the real culprit in this fiasco: Sebelius. The president "did an admirable job of explaining, reframing but not defending the mistakes" of Sebelius, an unnamed Democratic lawmaker told Politico. "Still, an army in which a general is bailing out a failed colonel is a losing army."

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To most observers, however, it would seem inexcusable that the "general" wouldn't know about such glaring technical problems. If they are fixed soon, and don't dissuade healthy, young people from signing up for ObamaCare, then most likely this whole episode will be forgotten in a couple of months. If they aren't, things could get bad — really bad, with premiums shooting up and the health insurance exchanges stuck with an expensive, high-risk pool of patients.

In other words, the stakes are high. The pressure for ObamaCare to go off without a hitch might have been the reason Obama never knew about the problems in the first place, theorizes The Washington Post's Ezra Klein and Evan Soltas:

It would be one thing if problems with the government's new healthcare website had been unknowable. But they weren't. Staff at HHS and CMS saw this coming for months. Insurance companies began predicting a mess long ago. But the bad news was shaded and spun as it made its way up the chain of command. The alarming failures seen in the (inadequate) load tests were written off as bugs that would soon be fixed. [Washington Post]

Nobody wants to be the person to tell Obama that his legacy is giving users "Error" messages. That pretty much leaves us where we are now, in oddly familiar situation.

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Like with the IRS scandal, Republicans are readying their attack dogs. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has already launched an investigation into what went wrong with the ObamaCare rollout. His (some would say overblown) accusations might not result in anybody losing their jobs.

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Still, Sebelius will be there next week, answering questions. Obama, like before, won't.

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