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April 17, 2014

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OTHER VOICES:

Gloating about Obamacare

Schadenfreude, the delight that one takes in the misery of others, is running rampant on the political right, thanks to President Barack Obama’s bumpy launch of Obamacare. But the misery of the uninsured is nothing to celebrate.

Republicans needed some good news after taking a beating in the polls from the partial government shutdown and debt ceiling crises. They got it with the “fumbled” rollout — Obama’s description — of his signature legislative achievement: the Affordable Care Act, known as “Obamacare.”

Amid growing backlash from customers with canceled policies — and panic setting in among nervous Democrats such as Sen. Mary Landrieu, who is up for re-election next year in conservative Louisiana — the president on Thursday was forced to take defensive action.

To restore his often-repeated yet sadly broken “you like your plan, you can keep your plan” pledge, he has asked the states to allow insurers to keep selling current plans for one more year, even if they fail to meet the new health care law’s standards.

Of course, being allowed to do it doesn’t mean they will do it. It remains to be seen how many insurers actually will extend current plans under Obama’s new rules and how many state insurance commissioners will go along with it.

The administration apparently had hoped that so many insurance purchasers would be pleased by the new and more comprehensive plans offered by Obamacare’s online state insurance exchanges that they wouldn’t remember Obama’s pledge. That was before the federal exchange’s website went ka-blooey.

As everyone waits to see whether the administration programming SWAT teams can get the site up to full speed by the hoped-for deadline at the end of November, Obama’s ratings as a “strong and decisive leader” and “honest and trustworthy” have taken a beating in the latest Gallup Poll.

No wonder Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, among others who call incessantly for Obamacare’s repeal, tweets his delight: “#Gotinsurance? Reminder: Millions of Americans #HadInsurance until Obamacare ...”

Of course, Cruz makes no mention of the millions more who do not have insurance. In fact, his state has the nation’s largest number of uninsured, 6.2 million, according to the Census Bureau.

Conservatives are gleeful because there’s more at stake here than a website or the president’s reputation. Also at stake is the fundamental difference between right and left: faith in the ability of government to solve big problems without creating too many new ones.

Both parties have long agreed on this much: The nation’s health care system has too little control of rising costs and leaves too many people uninsured. Obama and his party stuck their necks out to enact a solution, while Republicans continue their relentless pushback.

Now, amid its fumbled rollout, even Obama’s complaints in his news conference sound like every conservative’s lampoon of government bloat and bureaucracy.

He even waxed nostalgic about the cutting-edge IT (information technology) genius of his election campaign team, compared to “doing it at the federal government level,” where “you’re going through, you know, 40 pages of specs and this and that ... there’s all kinds of law involved. ... It’s part of the reason why chronically federal IT programs are over budget, behind schedule.”

Sounds like the former “hope” and “change” candidate has learned the hard way to have a little more conservative pessimism about government’s ability to perform miracles. But he doesn’t need a miracle. He just needs a health care program that works. So do the nation’s uninsured and under-insured.

The bumpy rollout is far from over. Even if the website gets patched together by Nov. 30, as promised, the president’s new “keep your plan” announcement only adds to the challenges that already have depressed early enrollment way below monthly goals.

Like the early months of former governor Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts plan and Lyndon B. Johnson’s Medicare, we can expect other bumps to offer amusement to Obama’s rivals.

But we haven’t heard much yet from satisfied Obamacare customers. In the long run, if Obamacare delivers on its promises, Americans will have wider coverage, cheaper insurance and better preventive care — and the president may yet have the last laugh.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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