Mark Mardell: Obama’s worst week yet?

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US President Barack Obama speaks on the economy at the ArcelorMittal Cleveland steel mill in Cleveland, Ohio on 14 November 2013Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Sign-up rates for President Barack Obama's signature healthcare law have been low amid ongoing technical issues

It has been a pretty dreadful week for President Barack Obama. Flapping around his head are a whole flock of chickens coming home to roost.

This is all about his greatest achievement - the law for which he will be remembered - the programme nicknamed for him, Obamacare.

It is in trouble. He is in trouble.

The sign-up for Obamacare was pitiful. He was forced into holding a news conference of abject apology while Democrats, most notably Bill Clinton, ran as fast as they could away from the president whose poll ratings had just plunged to a new low.

It was capped by a savaging from Jon Stewart. Can it get worse than that?

'Folks are frustrated'

I'm reminded of the doyen of spin doctors, Alistair Campbell, when journalists wrote that some speech or other of Tony Blair's was "the most important of his career".

He laconically agreed it probably was, since the last most important speech of his career. And until the next one.

The same is true of Mr Obama's worst week. That news conference was the full-blown humble-pie-eating act. Here's a selection of quotes:

"I understand why folks are frustrated."

"I do make apologies for not having executed better over the last several months."

"We and I did not have enough awareness about the problems in the website."

"That's on me."

"That's something I deeply regret."

"I feel deeply responsible for making it harder for them rather than easier."

"When we don't do a good job on the rollout, we're letting them down. And, you know, I don't - I don't like doing that."

"I said early on when I was running, I am not a perfect man and I will not be a perfect president."

"There have been times where I thought we were - got, you know, slapped around a little bit unjustly. This one's deserved, all right? It's on us."

'Acute distress'

I haven't seen the president squirm like this since his shell-shocked performance after his shellacking in the 2010 mid-terms. Then he wondered aloud how he'd lost the plot and how he could do better.

Then his acute distress must have reflected his understanding of just how bad his plight was. When he lost the House, he lost all hope of pushing through the rest of an ambitious progressive agenda.

Now his one historic achievement, the one big law he got through before he lost the House, is in grave danger. With it his whole reputation, his legacy.

A colleague pointed out that only last week, we - and the rest of the media - were highlighting the hole the Republicans were in. It is true. They are in a mess, and so is Mr Obama.

Their problem is about how to win elections, his is about the limits on what you can do after you've won.

'Intense scrutiny'

Image source, AP
Image caption,
Opponents of Obamacare have protested vigorously against the sweeping healthcare reform law

At the heart of his problem is a plan that is inherently complex and confusing. He decided at the beginning of his presidency that he would never sell a simple government-run scheme.

It would have been even more controversial than Obamacare, it probably wouldn't have got through Congress, but if it had it would have had the huge advantage of simplicity and clarity.

Instead the federal government parts of the plan got whittled away. But then when Republican states refused to set up their own programmes, the federal government came back in.

Mr Obama is in a hole now because of the technical failure of an already ideological, controversial plan which bewilders most people with its inherent complexity.

He has promised that he will "chip away" at the problem, and that everything will be much better by the beginning of next month.

Democrats will hope these teething problems will fade and be forgotten. But it may not be a "chipable" problem.

Mr Obama will be under intense scrutiny as we head into the new year and the mid-term elections.

If his worst week turns into his worst month, it will be a pretty dismal 2014 for the president.