Belmont Club

The Strategic Failure of Barack Obama

“A gaffe,” Michael Kinsley once said, “is when a politician tells the truth.” Unfortunately for the Obama administration, Jonathan Gruber, an economist hired to design Obamacare, was fecklessly candid about how the Obama administration misrepresented their flagship program to the rubes.

Nancy Pelosi quickly stepped in to show him how pros do it by denying she ever met Gruber, though the Washington Post produced  transcripts of the former speaker copiously buttressing her arguments with references to Gruber.  The biggest laugh, however, came from Mother Jones, which writes that “the Supreme Court Might Gut Obamacare. Your State Could Save It.” This is a reference to King vs Burwell, the case which Paul Krugman declared no lawyer would take seriously and which is now scheduled to go before the Supreme Court.

Mother Jones explains King vs Burwell is nothing but a ‘law-o’, a ‘moops’. “The King plaintiffs base their argument on the fact that in parts of the Affordable Care Act, the text says subsidies will be available for people ‘enrolled through an Exchange established by the State.’ … Salon’s Simon Maloy calls the conservative case the ‘Moops’ argument,” because the law can’t ever mean what it actually says when that conflicts with what the president intends. Even so, Mother Jones argues the states can still save Obamacare if only Republican governors agree to offer subsidies should the Supreme Court decides the feds can’t.

What’s funny isn’t that the Republicans have discovered Gruber. The what’s really hilarious is that the Obama administration has just rediscovered the States,  the US Supreme Court and the Republican Party after a long period of ignoring them completely. Suddenly it’s “help! Save Obamacare!”. The biggest political weakness of Obamacare, which is only now becoming apparent  to Democrats, is that it was attempted on the back of a very narrow “progressive” consensus;  without a single Republican vote in either House, in the teeth of the fact that 36 states did not establish exchanges and on the assumption the Supremes would not dare to raise a hand against it.

The 2014 midterm elections finally collapsed the fiction that Obamacare is somehow the immutable ‘law of the land’.  Gruber’s frankness exposed the fact that the attempt to present an entire country with a fait accompli was really just a bunch of garbage cloaked by an elaborate deception operation.  At bedrock it hadn’t a strategic leg to stand on and was doomed to fail when someone called its bluff.

The biggest reason to focus on this problem is because president Obama is about to do the same thing again.  The New York Times reports that the president is planning to legalize up to 5 million illegal immigrants  in complete defiance of the Republican majority in both Houses and polls which show public hostility to such a move.

President Obama will ignore angry protests from Republicans and announce as soon as next week a broad overhaul of the nation’s immigration enforcement system that will protect up to five million undocumented immigrants from the threat of deportation and provide many of them with work permits, according to administration officials who have direct knowledge of the plan.

Asserting his authority as president to enforce the nation’s laws with discretion, Mr. Obama intends to order changes that will significantly refocus the activities of the government’s 12,000 immigration agents. One key piece of the order, officials said, will allow many parents of children who are American citizens or legal residents to obtain legal work documents and no longer worry about being discovered, separated from their families and sent away.

You can do these things with a strong consensus; and if the policy change pays off in ways that confirm its fundamental rightness.  But you can’t do it in the teeth of a contrary gale and not even break-even for the average man in sight.  Yet it’s deja vu all over again;  in amnesty we have a huge undertaking attempted on the narrowest  ‘progressive’ consensus  advanced under  a deception operation with barely concealed contempt for the practical consequences  on the American people.  The presidential amnesty bids fair to repeat every mistake Obamacare made, and then some.

Grand strategy is the highest level of sanity check.  It’s a consideration of whether an undertaking is plausibly feasible.  Grand strategic failures occur when huge risks are run without any realistic chance of success. They occur when the means are manifestly inadequate to achieve the ends.  Obamacare was a grand strategic failure. An overarching, ambitious project that hadn’t a hope in hell of being realistically implemented.  Obamacare’s planners did more than lie to the public.  They lied to themselves.

Modern scholars now believe that both Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union and Japan’s Pacific offensive against the United States were grand strategic failures because the goals were unrealistic from the outset.  They could not possibly have been attained. For example, the strategic goal of Barbarossa was to seize the whole continental landmass to the east; to conquer the Soviet Union and implement “a secret Nazi German plan for the colonization of Central and Eastern Europe [which] would have necessitated genocide  and ethnic cleansing on a vast scale.” This would require among other things, exterminating whole nations including but not limited to the physical elimination of 85% of the Poles, 60% of the Russians, 75% of the Belarusians, 65% of the Ukranians,  etc, etc and 100% of the Jews.

To accomplish this goal Hitler only had the forces available in the summer of 1941, but  no new tank factories or AFV designs, no plans for industrial mobilization, no rational strategy for winning the Battle of the Atlantic and preventing a second front.  That came later as an afterthought. But by then it was too late.

As Robert Forczyk pointed out, even if the Panzers had run unopposed to Moscow only 10% of them would have mechanically survived the road march over such a distance. David Stahel concluded in his study Operation Barbarossa and Germany’s Defeat in the East, the Germans lost the war when they failed to win in the first few months.  Once the wild strategic gamble failed it was all over bar the shouting.

It was a dream too far. Obamacare has been failing for some time for lack of practicality.  Most of its “accomplishments” are Medicaid expansion.  Its website was a joke.  Its premiums are high and its deductibles are higher. The HHS now projects a very slow growth for Obamacare’s “metal plans”, expecting only a net 2 million more to sign up this year. If all goes according to plan, that  means it will only take about 8 years to get to the breakeven number of  25 million members at this rate.

The problem isn’t the Republicans. The difficulty is that the Obamacare Urals are unattainable.  Even if nobody opposed Barbarossa by the time it got there it would have been reduced to Sergeant Schultz on a horse.  Now if only the Germans had bothered to make nice to the Poles, the Balts, the Ukranians and the Jews — developed a consensus in other words —  there might have been some company for Schultz.  If Obamacare had sought allies, listened to the States instead of heeding only their ideological imperatives, it might not be as isolated as it is today.

The road march for Obamacare has been equally cruel. That’s because its policies are unattractive and its managers are hacks.  The metaphorical healthcare Blitzkrieg bogged down a long time ago; it is not going to reach Moscow, it may not even reach the metaphorical Kiev.  The difficulty wasn’t that Gruber talked, but that nobody listened.  As Howard Dean said about Gruber’s comments:

“The problem is not that he said it. The problem is that he thinks it. I’m serious. The core problem under this damn law is that it was put together by a bunch of elitists who don’t really fundamentally understand the American people. That’s what the problem is.”

Or as I would put it: the problem was not operational, it was conceptual. You can’t successfully execute a crazy idea. One commenter observed that if Obama had simply focused on providing medical care for indigent Americans, he would have fared better instead trying to take over the entire American health care system. But no; Obama was aiming for nothing less than a ‘fundamental transformation’ and planned to achieve it without reference to the States, the cooperation of the Legislature or even the Supreme Court.  And he is failing.

The amount of self-deception was immense from the outset.’Nothing could stop Obamacare, the law of the land’, except that something already has. But instead of learning his lesson, he is going to launch yet another catastrophe with the same narrow base and the same the reckless abandon. Why does he think he’ll succeed? Because somewhere along the line the little group of decision makers in the White House has gotten the biggest ticket item, the strategy, dead wrong.  How can you break down the borders of your own country and expect it to end well? Most historical tragedies  are tragic not because nobody saw it coming; they are sorrowful precisely because anyone could see it coming and didn’t.

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