Obamacare, surveillance and the media


In the news:

• The Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. The rollout undeniably a political disaster for its author, and just as the administration appeared to have the wind at its back. Having bested House Republicans, or a subset of same, in the budget and debt ceiling showdown, the White House is again on the defensive, President Obama’s signature legislative victory stained by a dysfunctional Internet portal. The conversation now is not about what Mr. Obama hopes to achieve in the years remaining in his term but how he’ll rescue his health reform plan from the cyber-wreckage and revitalize it.

Though a website is not in and of itself health care but a guide to obtaining health insurance, the damage could be more than cosmetic. As the always estimable Ron Brownstein of National Journal noted a couple days ago, the political “optics” of the website breakdown is one thing, and not a good thing; that it could hamper large-scale enrollment in the program would be quite another. The program is dependent on a sufficiently large risk pool (enrollees) and without it the goal of affordable coverage is imperiled.

The frustration of those in charge of implementing the Arkansas variation of the program is their inability, thus far, to market it to the greatest extent possible. “Outreach,” they call it. Advertising is another word for it.

A website can be fixed, computers and servers and whatnot can be upgraded. Indeed improvements evidently are already being made and some success reported. But one can’t help but wonder why the government didn’t search for a couple of teenaged computer geeks instead of farming out the work, and its multi-million dollar contract. You know, dweebs like that Gates fellow, and Jobs.

• Electronic surveillance. Oh, but he’s catching it for eavesdropping too, Mr. Obama. It seems the U.S. national security apparatus has been monitoring the phone calls of foreign heads of state, even our allies; and one of them, Chancellor Merkel of Germany, is quite unhappy about it, demanding that it stop. One suspects that Merkel suspected; she’d be nuts if she didn’t, as would every other person on the planet with a cell phone. Or a hardline. Or a computer, or tablet. One suspects, too, that it won’t stop. The technology is too good, the surveillance establishment too large, the perceived national security imperative too great to much slow it down let alone end it.

(A quick digression, from something I read a couple of nights ago. On his first full day as president, Jimmy Carter began his day, as every president begins every day, with a briefing from the CIA. As their meeting began the agency’s director handed Carter a leather folio and bade him examine it. Inside were sparkling color pictures of his inauguration, less than 24 hours previous. Carter smiled in appreciation, then observed that the photographer’s angle seemed a bit odd, the photo’s perspective a bit unusual. “Who took these?” he inquired. It was the CIA director’s turn to smile. He pointed to the sky, his way of demonstrating to a new president the intelligence assets at his disposal. That was 1977. Almost 40 years and untold improvements later, is there much doubt what the spooks can turn up if they work at it?).

• The “liberal media.” Ask Mr. Obama if he thinks it’s going easy on him. He’s always been depicted, even by close associates, as pretty close in private to what he appears in public — cool, dispassionate, cerebral, disdainful of tantrums and those who throw them. And now — detached, too much so. An overworked phrase — “What did the president know and when did he know it?” — is in play, not without some justification. The president did not know that his health care website was in imminent danger of collapse, says his Secretary of Health and Human Services. Nor did he know that his spies were reading the mail, as it were, of foreign dignitaries, including his fellow chiefs executive. And if he didn’t know, why didn’t he know?

That his HHS staff didn’t signal looming problems strains credulity, but no less so than the notion that Mr. Obama didn’t bother to ask. Either scenario represents a serious breakdown. That he might not know the source of those delicious communications intercepts, however, is slightly more believable. Mr. Obama’s predecessor quite possibly did not know the precise locations, nor the precise techniques, that were employed to wring information from suspected al-Qaeda operatives. Better that the man at the top not know, the thinking went, when the phrase “plausible deniability” came about. In other words, “Don’t ask and we won’t tell.”

Steve Barnes is a native of Pine Bluff and the host of Arkansas Week on AETN.