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Obamacare burned by culture of secrecy

In this administration the key question is: What did the president not know, and why did the president not know it?
President Barack boards Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on Sept. 3, 2013 in Washington.
President Barack boards Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on Sept. 3, 2013 in Washington.

During their first month in operation, Obamacare’s new health insurance exchanges managed to sign up only about 106,000 customers—a number comparable to the paid circulation of a moderately successful regional print magazine. The main reason for this disappointing yield, as everybody now knows, was that the website for the federal exchanges,, wasn’t ready to operate. “I was not informed directly that the website would not be working as--the way it was supposed to,” President Obama said Thursday in a press conference. “Clearly, I did not have enough awareness about the problems in the website.”

How could the White House not know this? An emerging theme in news accounts is that the Obama administration was hamstrung by insularity and secrecy.

  • Just two months after the Affordable Care Act was signed into law in 2010, according to a Nov. 2 account in the Washington Post, Harvard economist and health-care expert David Card warned then-White House aide Larry Summers that the Centers For Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) was “not up to the task” of implementing the program. “The agency is demoralized,” Card wrote, “the best people have left, IT services are antiquated, and there are fewer employees than in 1981, despite a much larger burden.” Bring in people from the outside to run this, Card urged. Summers and White House budget chief Peter Orszag agreed, the Post reported, but Obama insisted on sticking with the team he had in place.
  • According to the same Post account, the White House resisted pleas by CMS staffers to make available to the states diagrams showing how the health exchanges would work. The reason: two decades earlier, then-Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole had scored political points against Hillarycare by mocking the complexity of a flowchart. Never mind that a similar flowchart, prepared by the Joint Economic Committee at the request of the House Republican leadership, failed to make much impression.
  • A similar fear of providing ammunition to political enemies caused the Obama administration to delay issuing various significant Obamacare regulations until after the 2012 election.

The Obamacare rollout isn’t the only instance in which the president or his top aides have been accused of being out of touch. The White House came in for similar criticism when it was disclosed that the president hadn’t known, until this past summer, that the National Security Agency had tapped German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cell phone. Obama’s insularity, the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank argued, “combined with a Bush-like fetish for secrecy, has left the president in a bubble.”

Inevitably, Obama got asked at Thursday’s press conference whether’s problems were discovered too late because the White House is too insular. The president’s answer: “I meet with an awful lot of folks. The idea that somehow we didn't have access or were interested in people's--people's ideas I think isn't accurate.”  No one doubts that Obama meets lots of people and gets to hear lots of different opinions. The more pressing question is whether Obama has adequate access to information—specifically, information about how well or poorly government agencies are working at the operational level.

The president’s management style poses an obvious problem here—Obama is someone who (like Bush) prefers to place a great deal of power in the hands of a small number of White House aides with whom he feels especially comfortable. But that secrecy makes such a management style especially perilous. It’s often been noted that this administration has prosecuted more leakers, on national security grounds, than all previous administrations combined. The Obama administration is similarly vigilant about squelching leaks (deliberate or inadvertent) that might cause the president political harm. Some of this reflects a gradual evolution away from openness that’s taken place in Washington generally, as White Houses have learned to prize “message control” above all else.

Secrecy’s cost to the public is obvious. In a democracy, we need to know what our government is up to. But the troubled Obamacare launch demonstrates that secrecy imposes a severe cost on government as well. As Leon V. Sigal explained four decades ago in his book Reporters and Officials: The Organization and Politics of Newsmaking, the press’s role isn’t confined to informing the public; it also plays at least as vital a role in letting various corners of the government to talk to one another. To underscore his point, Sigal quoted an affidavit that the economist John Kenneth Galbraith filed in the Pentagon Papers case. Recalling his days as ambassador to India during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, Galbraith said: “I found it easier to bring my views to bear on the President of the United States by way of the Washington Post and its New Delhi correspondent than by way of the State Department.”

Such calculations were never exactly encouraged in the nation’s capital, but neither were they judged anywhere near so taboo as they are today. Perhaps some of the blame for today’s information deficit belongs with an economically weakened press that’s less able to bankroll investigative reporting. But most of it is the fault of the government’s own exaggerated fear that a freer flow of information will cause trouble. The lesson of’s inauspicious launch is that when information about how government is working doesn’t flow freely, the harm can be much greater.