Following the announcement that Kathleen Sebelius is stepping down as Secretary of Health and Human Services, the New York Times ran this headline on the front page: “Sebelius Resigns After Troubles With Health Law Website.” And if the HHS chief had stepped down in, say, late November, this angle might be more compelling.
This week, however, arguably the more apt headline would read, “Sebelius Departs After Miraculous Comeback, Exceeding ACA Enrollment Goals.”
Perhaps it’s just a matter of perspective. If what matters most right now is that healthcare.gov was a dysfunctional mess last fall, then “website troubles” deserves to be the first line in the Sebelius legacy. On the other hand, if what matters most right now is that the website was repaired, enrollments soared, and the system is working as planned, “website troubles” should be a footnote in history.
Ezra Klein’s take rings true: Sebelius can step down because “Obamacare has won.”
Calls for Sebelius’s resignation were almost constant after Obamacare’s catastrophic launch. The problem wasn’t just that Sebelius had presided over the construction of a fantastically expensive web site that flatly didn’t work. […]But President Obama refused. As National Journal’s Major Garrett reported, Obama believes that “scaring people with a ceremonial firing deepens fear, turns allies against one another, makes them risk-averse, and saps productivity.” Moreover, there was too much to be done to fire one of the few people who knew how to finish the job. Sebelius would stay. The White House wouldn’t panic in ways that made it harder to save the law.The evidence has piled up in recent weeks that the strategy worked.
Sebelius tackled an extremely difficult job and made her share of mistakes – some of which were her fault, others not. But she and her team persevered and finished the job. What matters is how clutch players finish the game, not whether they had first-quarter turnovers.
In this sense, her departure isn’t the final page of a failed story; it’s a drop-the-mic moment for an official who got the last laugh after some early stumbles.
As for Republicans who engaged in some borderline-classless crowing last night, I kept having the same thought: Sebelius just helped bring access to affordable medical care to 10 million Americans; what’d they do?
Looking ahead, the White House actually made two announcements in one: Sebelius is stepping down and the search for her successor is already over. President Obama will nominate Sylvia Burwell, the current director of the Office of Management and Budget, to fill Sebelius’ shoes at HHS.
It’s easy to imagine a nightmarish confirmation process, with Republicans using hearings to complain incessantly about the ACA and nervous red-state Democrats afraid to vote for any nominee.
And while that may very well come to pass, it doesn’t have to be this way. Remember that when Burwell was confirmed to lead OMB last year, the confirmation vote was 96 to 0. She is, in other words, a very credible figure on the Hill. In fact, last night, some Senate Republicans held their fire against Burwell, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) went so far as to describe her as “an excellent choice” to lead HHS.