Column: Salesman in chief pitches Obamacare
By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON — Not since the Ginsu knife cut through an aluminum can and still sliced a tomato has America seen a pitch quite like the one President Obama delivered in the Rose Garden on Monday.
“The product is good. The health insurance that’s being provided is good. It’s high quality, and it’s affordable,” the president announced. “People can save money — significant money — by getting insurance that’s being provided through these marketplaces.”
How much would you pay for a health plan like this? Before you answer, listen to this:
“No one who decides to purchase a plan has to pay their first premium until December 15. And unlike the day after Thanksgiving sales for the latest PlayStation or flat-screen TVs, the insurance plans don’t run out.”
Wait! That’s not all.
“The Affordable Care Act is not just a website. It’s much more,” Obama said. “Billions of dollars have been saved by seniors already. That’s part of the law. It’s already in place. It’s happening right now.”
Now how much would you pay?
“Nearly six in 10 uninsured Americans will find that they can get coverage for less than $100 a month,” the president went on. “Through the marketplaces, you can get health insurance for what may be the equivalent of your cellphone bill. Or your cable bill. And that’s a good deal. ... And that product is working. It’s really good.”
If you act now, you’ll also get the matching carving fork, the versatile six-in-one kitchen tool, a set of six steak knives and the spiral slicer — all for $9.95.
“I want the checkout lines to be smooth. So I want people to be able to get this great product,” said the president of the United States, even giving out the toll-free number from the presidential podium. “Call centers are already up and running, and you can get your questions answered by real people, 24 hours a day, in 150 different languages. The phone number for these call centers is 1-800-318-2596. I want to repeat that: 1-800-318-2596.”
It was an extensive pitch — a bit too extensive. As Obama was closing his 27-minute infomercial, a woman standing right behind him passed out. The people around her caught her, and Obama turned around to assist. “This happens when I talk too long,” he explained.
Talking too long, yes. And protesting too much. Obama’s pitch sounded a bit desperate, and perhaps it should. The product he rolled out three weeks ago was seriously defective.
His administration says the widespread registration problems on HealthCare.gov are just “glitches” and “kinks.” But the difficulties may be bigger. If a sufficient number of people don’t sign up for the health care exchanges, Obamacare will be in trouble. The administration won’t say how many have signed up. The screw-up, Obama acknowledged, has emboldened opponents and unnerved supporters.
Obama has played pitchman before, when he bailed out the auto industry (“starting today, the United States government will stand behind your warranty”) and stabilized home mortgages (“If you are having problems with your mortgage, and even if you’re not and you just want to save some money, you can go to MakingHomeAffordable.gov”). But the stakes could be even higher this time, because if Obamacare fails, so will this president and his party.
And so the White House filled the Rose Garden with about 200 people (reporters joked that this was the total number of people nationwide who successfully navigated HealthCare.gov), including some in white coats. And so, with embattled Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius nodding along from the front row of the audience, the commander in chief hawked health-care plans the way George Foreman sells grills and James Dyson sells vacuums.
He began with a happy customer’s testimonial. Janice Baker, the first person to register for Obamacare in Delaware, pronounced herself “thrilled,” and she encouraged others to be patient. Obama followed with his hard sell: “Prices have come down. ... There’s a massive demand for it. ... Visited nearly 20 million times. ... A good deal at low costs. ... People are rushing. ... Thrilled with the result.”
The salesman said he wouldn’t sugarcoat the failures, which he’s addressing with a “tech surge.” Said Obama: “Nobody’s madder than me about the fact that the website isn’t working as well as it should, which means it’s going to get fixed.”
That’s important. If Obama can’t fix the problems, and quickly, the opposition will slice and dice Obamacare and make it into Julienne fries — and no sales pitch will save it.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.