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Obama and Sebelius Still Can’t Decide Whether Is Ready

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

It’s a shame we can’t lay odds on which week in early 2014 Kathleen Sebelius is most likely to lose her job. My best guess is that it’ll take place sometime in February, when it won’t steal press from President Obama’s State of the Union address.  This would actually be a fortuitous window for her termination, since that month is historically a lousy one for any kind of betting action—after the Superbowl, before March Madness, when bookies cash in their vacation time (where do you suppose they go? Not Vegas, right?). The event now seems so inevitable that it would be nice if a few of us could actually benefit from it.

The many flaws of the early-stage Obamacare rollout require no enumeration here, though it’s worth mentioning that the Health and Human Services secretary has already endured much of the opprobrium that typically leads vulnerable officeholders to consider spending more time with the fam: the pity-and-mockery cocktail of the "Daily Show" interview, the grilling by a hostile House committee, the admission of responsibility. And of course, we’ve all heard the baying of Republican hellhounds calling for her head, though they’d be more outraged if the law was better implemented. And yet no resignation thus far. Her critics’ insistence has only made more intractable the president’s reluctance to dismiss her, since terminating her now will further fuel their bloodlust.

Those critics may return from their Thanksgiving break fortified with new ammunition, however. According to the New York Times, the White House is pressing their allies to tap the breaks on Obamacare enrollment through the first week of December, concerned that will again be overwhelmed by users. White House Communications Director Jennifer Palmieri reportedly informed two outside groups, the SEIU and Enroll America, that they “shouldn’t be driving traffic.” If the implications of this statement weren’t ominous enough, the reality actually gets worse: The story broke just a day after Sebelius urged a group of state and local lawmakers to “not hesitate to recommend” the site to their constituents and described it as “working much better.”

One marvels at the communication breakdown that could have led to such a blunder. If the administration spent the early part of the week deliberately lowering expectations of the site, they surely expect another round of technical glitches and Beltway pearl-clutching after their bizarrely self-imposed Nov. 30 deadline. That’s bad enough, but Sebelius’s announcement means that prospective consumers are now simultaneously being invited to enroll and warned off for a few days more. 

We’re now past the point of asking why wasn’t ready by the beginning of October—it wasn’t, and that was a damaging failure, but it seems that no second term can be free from these kinds of lapses. And I’m not particularly interested in why the problems plaguing it haven’t been fully corrected yet, since the high stakes and public scrutiny basically guarantee that it will be more or less operational by the beginning of next year (although that’s by no means guaranteed). But: If two months weren’t sufficient to iron out the rest of the kinks, why set a time limit of two months? And why, in the name of God, encourage people to revisit the site on the eve of a holiday weekend, when you know it’s likely to collapse again? Was the phone connection down between Palmieri’s and Sebelius’s offices?

I am skeptical of the benefits of political firings (or forced resignations; for our purposes, they are effectively the same). It’s rare, for one thing, that they’re ever truly merited, since an administration’s opponents will seize on any spurious scandal or perceived mismanagement as an opportunity to claim a scalp. They also feed the cycle of bad press, since they validate whatever claims were made against the terminated official and generally make the executive appear feckless—either because he hired an incompetent or because he caved to his enemies. President Obama need only look to his predecessor’s calamitous second term to determine that it might be wise to carry on political deadweight rather than cast it over the side: The U.S. attorneys imbroglio didn’t subside because Alberto Gonzales headed back to Texas.

But it’s difficult to believe that Sebelius will be kept around to weigh down Democratic fortunes in advance of the 2014 midterm elections. She’s been a team player for Obama in the past, endorsing him over Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries and acting as the public face of the administration’s requirement of employee health plans to cover birth control. But she now represents an albatross around the party’s neck, and her ongoing contribution to health care reform may be to avoid more unforced errors before she’s finally cut loose.

It’s no certainty that she’ll be purged, of course—both Democrats and Republicans tried to force out Timothy Geithner from the Treasury, and he doggedly stuck around. But the abolition of filibusters on presidential appointments made it all the easier for Sebelius to be replaced. Her odds, in other words, ain’t good. The only question now is whether we could pair her sacking in a parlay with Eric Holder’s impeachment.

Kevin Mahnken is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.