The Magazine

The Point of No Return

President Obama is about to play defense, for three years.

Nov 4, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 08 • By FRED BARNES
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President Obama is facing the abyss. It’s that moment when a president’s plans are overwhelmed by his problems, and he’s relegated to playing defense for the rest of his White House term. Obama’s agenda already lingers near death. His poll numbers have slipped to new lows. His speeches are full of alibis and accusations.

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Obama with 11 Americans who may or may not have been able to log on to healthcare.gov

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Obama hasn’t reached the point of no return, but he’s close. His biggest problem is the collapse of Obamacare on its launching pad as the entire country watched. And there’s worse trouble ahead. More likely than not, Obamacare will be the dominant issue in the final three-plus years of his presidency. From that, there’s no recovery.

Years on defense—impotent years—have beset even the strongest of presidents. After the Iran-contra scandal broke in November 1986, the Reagan presidency was essentially over. He served two more years and made a triumphant trip to the Soviet Union, but his power was gone. The low point was the overturning of his veto of a highway bill.

Jimmy Carter’s presidency was hardly a powerhouse. Still, it had one shining moment, when the Camp David peace accord between Israel and Egypt was signed in September 1978. What clout Carter had vanished after the “malaise” speech in July 1979. It made him a target of ridicule. 

Impeachment in 1998 forced President Clinton into retreat. His popularity remained high, but he abandoned an agenda that included entitlement reform. Even an unexpected Democratic victory in the midterm elections in his second term couldn’t revive his presidency.

In George W. Bush’s case, problems in his second term quickly engulfed his administration. The Iraq war became a bloodbath, his plan for overhauling Social Security had few takers, and he was blamed, unfairly, for the incompetent response to Hurricane Katrina. A troop buildup and adoption of a counterinsurgency strategy saved Iraq from disaster, but otherwise Bush’s second term was marked by futility.

Now, with his presidency in peril, Obama seems unprepared to avert paralysis. The failed startup of Obamacare, its website a “joke” in the view of 60 percent of America in a Fox News poll, caught the president by surprise. He refused to acknowledge the magnitude of the problem, conceding only that healthcare.gov wasn’t working as “smoothly as it was supposed to.” Neither is his presidency.

From all appearances, Obama sees the Obamacare mess as partly a political headache. A headline in Politico last week captured this: “White House works to flip Obamacare narrative.” It’s as if Obama and his advisers think they’re dealing with a faux pas to be smoothed over with political spin. Commentary’s Peter Wehner calls this attitude “detachment from reality.”

True, Obamacare will be a campaign issue in the 2014 midterm elections and no doubt a significant factor in the presidential election two years later. But that’s not because Obamacare is merely a matter of politics. It’s because Obamacare is now the official health care system for 310 million people and represents one-sixth of the American economy.

And it’s a national embarrassment whose troubles are only beginning. Unpleasant shocks loom for a majority of Americans who tap into Obamacare exchanges. Those 40 years of age and younger will discover next year their insurance premiums are “a lot higher than they would pay in today’s market,” says health care expert James Capretta. That will create a furor.

So, too, some lower-middle-income and middle-class Americans will find their access to doctors is limited. Why? Because many of the country’s biggest and best hospitals and some doctors have not agreed to take on this category of patients. Also, patients will be forced to endure longer waits as a result of a doctor shortage. In 2015 and 2016, the popular Medicare Advantage program will shrink.

Low-income folks and those with preexisting conditions will prosper under Obamacare. But how will middle-income Americans feel when they learn they’re paying considerably more for the same insurance? Not happy, I suspect. Or those under 30 who chose a “catastrophic-only” policy with high deductibles? They won’t be thrilled when told they are ineligible for a subsidy, whatever their income.

The point is that as Obamacare is rolled out over the final years of this presidency, there will be numerous occasions when Obama’s promises about the new health insurance scheme are exposed as untrue. If these incidents don’t provoke a crisis, they’ll at least keep Obamacare from fading as a prominent and fiercely debated issue.

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