WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama has faced a persistent challenge in office. The advocate of big, bold actions to address large and seemingly intractable problems, he has struggled to convince the public that government is equipped to carry out such transformational changes.
The rollout of the Affordable Care Act has highlighted that challenge, and the administration's response has no doubt set the president back. He and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius were slow to acknowledge the scope of the problems with HealthCare.gov, and overall the administration has hardly lived up to its pledge to be the most transparent in history.
Administration officials insist that the health-care law is sound, even if the Web site has proved a nightmare to navigate. But the questions raised by the botched rollout go beyond whether the Web site Obama touted so positively is merely plagued with technological glitches or is flawed in more fundamental ways. The whole episode points to the broader debate that the president has yet to win about the role of government.
When he was reelected last November, Obama and his advisers took the results as a mandate to continue or even accelerate the kinds of changes he had started during his first term. Democrats looked at the coalition that gave Obama a second term and saw the makings of a new progressive era after decades of conservative ascendancy.
But exit polls underscored the degree to which he had lost ground on the core debate about government's role. After four years of Obama as president, voters showed a smaller appetite for government to do things than they had when he was first elected.
On Election Day 2012, just 43 percent of those who voted said they wanted government to do more to solve problems, while 51 percent said government was doing too many things that were better left to the private sector or individuals. Four years earlier, in November 2008, the exit polls showed just the opposite: 51 percent said they wanted government to do more, while 43 percent said it should do less.
The gap between the ambitions of those who advocate government doing more and the implementation of those programs was on display Thursday. That day, the left-leaning Center for American Progress (CAP) marked its 10th anniversary with a conference celebrating progressive ideas and governance. As the conference proceeded, government contractors were testifying on Capitol Hill, explaining why the health-care Web site had functioned so poorly.
The CAP conference highlighted the center's preeminence as an incubator of progressive ideas, and the star-studded lineup of speakers illustrated the group's central place in the Democratic establishment. The sessions featured the party's presidential nominees from 2000 and 2004 -- former vice president Al Gore and current Secretary of State John F. Kerry -- and the evening speaker was the person many Democrats hope will be the next president, Hillary Rodham Clinton. The event also drew two other Cabinet officials -- Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Labor Secretary Tom Perez -- as well as California Gov. Jerry Brown and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, among other luminaries.
Kerry excoriated the Republicans for shutting down the government and warned that America's ability to lead in the world is threatened by government's dysfunction. Gore was even more passionate and animated in urging progressives to do more to win the argument for aggressive action on climate change. Brown celebrated progressive governance in California. The panels focused on how to build an economy that gives middle-class families more security and combating global climate change, painting an optimistic vision of increasingly active government.
But Larry Summers, the former Treasury secretary, sounded a note of caution amid all the discussion about how best to fix the problems everyone in the groups said needed fixing. Summers argued that to win the debate about ideas, progressives also had to prove that government can work.
He called the week's unfolding bad news about the Affordable Care Act a "lesson triumphant" for the left about the importance of gaining the public's trust. "We can't think of things like that as glitches if we want to renew confidence in the public sector," he said.
What Summers said was almost a throwaway line at the end of a much longer discussion about the economy, but it was notable for injecting a dose of realism into the conference proceedings. It was also a reminder that on two of the biggest priorities of the Obama administration, the economy and health care, results have fallen short of promises.
Middle-class security was central to Obama's reelection campaign message. But even as the unemployment rate ticks down, the economy is providing less opportunity and upward mobility for many workers than it once did. Labor-force participation has not returned to pre-recession levels, and the number of people working part-time rather than full-time has jumped. Income inequality remains a major problem.
Obama and his team have long argued that their early economic policies prevented a second Great Depression. But on the bigger project, providing economic security to the middle class, Obama has struggled to gain support for a significantly more robust role for government. Now he is faced with the same questions about health care. If government doesn't work when it's supposed to, the public isn't likely to ask government to do more.
Obama has faced a recalcitrant Republican opposition in Congress and around the country. Conservatives opposed his economic stimulus plans, made clear they would not go along with a second round of stimulus that some economists were advocating (many Democrats were reluctant, as well) and have been trying to defund, delay or otherwise disrupt the implementation of the health-care law.
As a result of the government shutdown, Republicans have their own sizable problems to deal with if they want to show their party is capable of governing at the national level. But Obama and the Democrats are the advocates for more government, which is why the problems with the rollout of the health-care law potentially loom so large. When government doesn't work, it's difficult to persuade people that government should do even more.