Putting on a brave face and opting for defiance rather than contrition, the president boasted on October 21 that his new website had been a hit after all. “Turns out, there’s a massive demand for it,” Obama said. “So far, the national website, Healthcare.gov, has been visited nearly 20 million times. [Applause.] Twenty million times.”
Twenty million is a large number — such a large number, in fact, that it was deemed worthy of dramatic repetition in the president’s speech, and chosen, too, as the basis for the White House’s initial PR campaign. “The number of people who’ve visited the site has been overwhelming,” Obama claimed in the course of his defense, and this “has aggravated some of these underlying problems.” This message was quickly seized upon by the White House’s ideological allies: The problem with Obamacare, we were told until it was no longer credible, is that it was too damn popular, and no computer system could be expected to deal with the “massive” number of people visiting. At Wonkblog, Ezra Klein went so far as to claim that the significant interest was exactly “what the Republicans were afraid of.”
What a difference a week has made. Now, the administration is apparently unable to decide what constitutes a Big Number and what is merely loose change. Pushing back against the increasingly common realization that Obamacare’s achievements have thus far been to expose the president as an incorrigible liar and to corrupt the individual health-insurance market in precisely the way that critics were lambasted for suggesting it would, Jay Carney complained last Tuesday that reporters were blowing out of proportion the number of people whose health insurance is being canceled. “In some of the coverage of this issue in the last several days,” Carney griped, “you would think that you were talking about 75 percent or 80 percent or 60 percent of the American population!” Instead, he noted bitterly, “the universe we’re talking about” is only “5 percent of the population.”
Out of context, “5 percent of the population” does not sound especially impressive. But 5 percent of the population is 15 million people — or the collective population of Alaska, Delaware, Montana, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Maine, Hawaii, Idaho, West Virginia, Nebraska, New Mexico, and both the Dakotas. Fifteen million people is 300 Yankee Stadiums or two New York Cities. It is twice the number of Germans who died during the Second World War. It is, in another words, a lot of people.
With this in mind, one almost feels sympathetic toward the administration’s crack team of liars. By now, they must be realizing that they have been given an impossible mission: to argue simultaneously that 20 million people’s visiting a website is worthy of our awe and admiration and that 15 million living, breathing rebuttals to the president’s incessant “if you like your health-care plan, you will be able to keep your health-care plan” promise are but an insignificant rounding error.
This will prove to be an almost impossible feat. Even if the sign-up numbers have improved dramatically by mid November, the deadline by which the White House has promised to finally divulge them, they will almost certainly be dwarfed by the numbers of those who have lost their insurance. Fear of such comparisons explains the administration’s reticence. Healthcare.gov may have experienced “massive demand” in its first few hours, but it has evidently failed to convert that demand into hard sales. The president claims that, on its first day, the site had 4.7 million unique visits; a leaked memo, meanwhile, shows that only six people signed up. Providing that the White House is telling the truth, Obama’s “really good product” thus achieved a visit-to-sign-up ratio of just 1:783,333. By way of contrast, direct mail — almost universally loathed — has a conversion rate of around one in 25, which means that the Smartest President Ever’s signature law is running around 31,000 times behind unsolicited copies of the Sears catalogue.
Even in states where the websites have been running marginally better, the promise of a surge in private insurance is looking more and more like a pipe dream. In Maryland, there have been 82,473 enrollments in Medicaid and 3,186 enrollments in private insurance; in Oregon, a state whose performance was proudly touted by the president on August 21, 62,000 people have been added to the Medicaid rolls while not a single person has signed up for private insurance; and in Washington State, the ratio of Medicaid to private insurance enrollees is 1:7. So far, it seems, the result of the federal government’s biggest expansion in 50 years has been hundreds of thousands of people added to a program that doesn’t work. The GI Bill this is not.
“When we first saw the numbers, everyone’s eyes kind of bugged out,” Matt Salo, the head of the National Association of Medicaid Directors, told the Washington Post last week. “Of the people walking through the door, 90 percent are on Medicaid. We’re thinking, what planet is this happening on?”,
I’m not entirely sure why Mr. Salo is so stupefied that a federal law intended to expand Medicaid is yielding a significant increase in the number of people enrolled in Medicaid, nor why he is shocked that forcing people to buy a commercial product that they didn’t want from a store that doesn’t work has been met with anger. Nevertheless, his essential question is one that I have asked myself. From the very start, Obamacare has struck me as a particularly protracted and boring episode of The Twilight Zone — an episode in which a hopeless charlatan tries to explain to a skeptical public that if they just run with him, human nature will be altered by good intentions, the laws of mathematics will be suspended, and government will finally end its long run of failure to be reinvented as an Aston Martin. “What planet is this happening on?” is the exact question that conservatives have been asking for five years.
The first rule of crisis management is that if you have something that makes you look good, you share it. It is fair to assume that the administration does not have anything that makes it looks good. As David Freddoso notes on ConservativeIntel, “the Obama administration is in fact receiving a daily update on enrollments — and there’s no reason they can’t share the numbers.” Actually, there is an extremely good reason: The numbers are terrible. I know it; you know it; and the Obama administration, which has access to a real-time dashboard, knows it, too.
For the first time in his presidency, Barack Obama must be genuinely scared, for numbers are funny things. On the one hand, as Ned Land quips dismissively in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, “you can make figures do whatever you want.” On the other hand, if you’re going to try that game, you had better be sure that you’re playing on more solid ground. Electorates can be fooled some of the time but there is a limit to their credulity, especially when they can see with their own eyes that they were lied to, and lied to good. No amount of trickery can turn 6 into a large number, nor 15 million into a small one — even when the man who got the most votes insists contumaciously upon pretending to the contrary.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.