Barack Obama is the coolest president we’ve had since John F. Kennedy, at least according to conventional standards for such things. Obama has always been a brand as much as a politician, one that has been perceived as sleek, smart and up to date.
Then along came Healthcare.gov. Its failure to launch is a signal event in the long political battle over Obamacare and perhaps an inflection point in the president’s image. It’s hard to maintain a sense of truly being on the cutting edge of change when you can’t build a website.
Obama’s cool was, in part, an artifact of world-class marketing. Graphic designer Michael Bierut writes in the book “Designing Obama” (yes, there’s such a book) of how impressed he was watching Obama rallies in 2008: “The awe-inspiring part was the way all the signs were faithfully, and beautifully, set in Hoefler & Frere-Jones’s typeface Gotham.” If only the folks at Health and Human Services were consumed with such attention to detail.
The tech community loves the president, and his presidential campaigns have been exercises in technological mastery far outstripping the competition. The Romney campaign’s humiliation was made complete last year with the spectacular Election Day failure of its voter-tracking system ORCA, which crashed without having been properly tested (and it wasn’t even run by Kathleen Sebelius).
The Obama team’s technological prowess reinforced the sense that it owned the future. Except it had no bearing on how the president would or could run the government. We’ve now learned that the president doesn’t know how to make a government website work, or know to check to see if it’s going to work. “Neither he and I are technology geeks,” Vice President Joe Biden explained the other day, “and we assumed that it was up and ready to run.”
When selling the prospective glories of his website, President Obama compared it to Travelocity and Amazon, leaders in a private sector that is highly flexible and reactive and where failure means extinction. Government is nothing like that. It never has been and never will be. It is plodding and bureaucratic, beholden to political imperatives and often stuck in practices that make no sense.
A presidential campaign can hire whomever it wants without taking account of procurement rules or any other bureaucratic impediment. It is a private entity subject to the laws of competition. It exists more in the world of Travelocity than Healthcare.gov.
The launch of Healthcare.gov should cast a shadow over the stirring passage in the president’s second inaugural address where he spoke of how “we must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government.” Government doesn’t excel at new ideas and technology, which is why the landscape is littered with failed government IT projects. The president now ruefully cites irrational procurement rules as a cause of Healthcare.gov troubles, as if these rules are news to him.
At the end of the day, the president has been a dazzling frontman for what is, in essence, the Department of Motor Vehicles. He has created a glittering image of hope and change that has little to do with a rumbling, ramshackle federal government that is still largely built along mid-20th-century lines. Instead of imbuing government with his sense of cool, he has been left apologizing for a government failure that profoundly runs against the zeitgeist.
We celebrate the Internet entrepreneurs who can take an idea and, with pluck and creativity, make it into a reality that we can’t live without. It is one of the ironies of the Obama Era that the same kids whose lives are defined by a dizzying array of endlessly changing choices have voted for a president invested in protecting a government that embodies the opposite. It may be that after five years, they are beginning to get a clue. A new Quinnipiac poll shows young people disapproving of the president 54 percent to 36 percent.
The image was that fine logo and typeface; the reality is Healthcare.gov.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: email@example.com.