Column: Obamacare isn’t Katrina. It’s Iran-contra

Reagan's televised address apologizing for the Iran-contra scandal and Obama apologizing for the Obamacare rollout / AP
November 15, 2013

Of all the analogies being drawn between the calamitous rollout of Obamacare and other government muck-ups throughout history, one deserves a closer look. What’s happening to Obamacare right now isn’t this president’s Iraq war, or his Hurricane Katrina, or his Lewinsky moment. It’s his Iran-contra scandal: a complicated and controversial policy dispute that involves deception, a hostile Congress, and the bludgeoning of presidential credibility. Iran-contra marked the end of the Reagan Revolution, and it’s not hard to see how the implementation of Obamacare might mark the end of the Obama Revolution as well. A boy can dream.

The analogy rests on the following similarity between presidents Reagan and Obama: For much of their time in office, the two men were more popular than their policies, and enjoyed higher personal approval than job approval. Ronald Reagan was always more popular than tax and spending cuts, and Barack Obama has been more popular than Obamacare and the stimulus. Reagan was hard to dislike. Obama is too, or so I’ve been told.

The news in 1986 that the Reagan administration had violated the arms embargo against Iran and traded weapons for hostages, with the proceeds of the weapons sales going to the anti-Sandinista insurgency in Nicaragua, threw the White House into disarray. The subsequent investigations into what exactly happened distracted Reagan and his team and damaged the president’s reputation. It’s hard to recall, especially as Reagan himself was never fully implicated in the scandal, but his approval ratings fell to a second-term low of 47 percent in the Gallup poll and his personal favorability fell as well.

Iran-contra ended the Reagan presidency. His major second term accomplishments, tax reform and a now infamous immigration amnesty, occurred before the scandal broke. The Republicans lost the Senate in 1986. The major battle in 1987 was over Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court, and Reagan lost that too. Reagan’s consolation prize was Anthony Kennedy, and no, we can’t return him. His domestic agenda at an end, Reagan turned to foreign policy where he had more freedom of action.

The Reagan Revolution, which began with plans to reduce dramatically the size and scope of government and roll back the gains the Soviets made in the 1970s, came to a screeching halt because the president lost the public’s trust. He had denied that America was funding the contras, a denial that was exposed as false. Though we remember Reagan’s accomplishments today—his tax cuts; his military buildup; his invigoration of American pride—the last two years of the Reagan administration were anything but pretty. Not even George H.W. Bush’s presidential victory, at the height of the Reagan boom, dispelled the smog of Iran-contra. Independent counsel Lawrence Walsh didn’t submit his final report to Congress until Bill Clinton’s first year in office.

President Obama’s job approval rating has been on a downward trajectory since he delivered his second Inaugural Address, but the latest numbers are particularly worrisome for him. They cut to likability and credibility. The Hart-McInturff poll found Obama’s personal approval at an all-time low, and half of the registered voters in the Fox News Poll say Obama lied about keeping your health care plan.

The continuing problems with the website can be fixed—at least theoretically. What can’t be repaired is the 37 times Obama said Americans could keep their health insurance if they liked it. No amount of fine print about grandfather clauses and the small individual market and who really likes their health care plan anyway erases the fact that the president deceived the public. The damage such deceit can wreak on a presidency is why Obama issued his directive to state insurance commissioners to allow canceled plans to be reinstated until after the 2014 election. It was the first episode in a long series called Damage Control.

The ramifications of Obama’s lie will continue to haunt him. Republicans can now blame every negative piece of health care news on Obamacare and the president who signed it into law. And there will be plenty of bad news to come: the status of the lost individual plans remains unclear, the website remains broken, there is no guarantee that the administration will meet its enrollment targets, the employer mandate hasn’t gone into effect, and just wait until the first security breaches, privacy violations, and fraudulent subsidies hit the exchanges. By passing Obamacare on a party line vote, Democrats welcomed the politicization of the health care market, or 18 percent of the economy. They’re going to get it.

The Obama Revolution, which came to office with plans to expand dramatically the role of government in our lives and restore America's reputation abroad, has come to a halt. Obamacare will consume the remainder of the Obama presidency. Administration officials are already making frequent trips to Capitol Hill to provide updates on the website, enrollments, lost plans, new plans, fraudulent plans, illegal subsidies, etc. The president and his team, exhausted by a year that has included the IRS scandal, the Justice Department leak scandal, the NSA scandal, the Syria absurdity, a defeat on gun control, and a deadlocked immigration reform, will devote the bulk of their time to making sure his health care bill actually works (easier said than done) and defending the president’s health care record.

There is always the possibility that Obama recovers from the train wreck. Just a month ago, remember, the collective consciousness of the national media had decided the government shutdown doomed the Republican Party to oblivion. may be magically fixed, the site may serve millions of customers at a time, the rest of the Affordable Care Act may be implemented without a hitch, the economy may boom, Hillary may win the presidency in 2016, the memories of polarization and partisanship and incompetence may gradually fade away. Life is full of surprises.

Once the narrative of second-term failure and unpopularity and untrustworthiness sets in, though, it is hard to break. Setbacks have a way of piling up, one on top of another. Weakness is provocative, as someone once said. The president, like Reagan, is looking to foreign policy to cement his legacy. Wouldn’t you know it, he’s been working on a deal with Iran.

What could go wrong?