Discuss as:

First Thoughts: Obama's rough year

Obama’s rough year… How to tell if HealthCare.Gov is truly better: 1) watch the advertising spending, and 2) watch the red-state Dems… Website 2.0’s very soft launch so far… What’s better with the site (error rates are down, more can use it)… What’s not better (the backend information)… Bloomberg News also reports that enrollment is up, but it’s still lagging behind earlier projections… Watching Ryan and Murray before the Dec. 13 deadline to get a budget conference report… Watching the possible retirements for 2014… RNC declared racism has ended?... And other stories you might have missed over the Thanksgiving holiday.

Mike Segar / REUTERS

A man looks over the Affordable Care Act (commonly known as Obamacare) signup page on the HealthCare.gov website.

*** Obama’s rough year: Now that we’re into the final month of the year, it’s worth recapping how rough 2013 has been for President Obama. The struggles with the federal website (more on that below) have dominated the last two months, and have sent his approval ratings to new lows. But before that, it was the damaging NSA/Snowden leaks. Before that, it was the IRS-Benghazi-leak stories (which have definitely lost their punch since the summer). And before that, it was the failure to get gun-control through the U.S. Senate. As the Washington Post’s Dan Balz writes, “This is hardly what Obama could have envisioned as he looked toward his second term in the weeks after his reelection. He took his 51 percent popular vote … as a mandate to press forward with a progressive agenda (although some around him warned not to over-interpret the voters’ message). With much to accomplish, he sounded a note of impatience in his inaugural address as he sketched out his ambitions.” And expect to see more and more examinations of Obama’s tough first year of his second term -- and even the “pre-obituaries” of his presidency. Just how bad are things, perception-wise, even among high-powered Democrats in Washington? Check out this blind quote from a supposed Clinton and Obama supporter who apparently turned down a job at the Pentagon. “Why take the risks of working in a second Obama administration, when you can make $300,000 in the private sector and then go work for Hillary?” But here’s the thing about politics: It can change in the blink of an eye. Who’s up can go down; who’s down can go up. And as we found out on Saturday, someone can run back a missed field goal kick 108 yards for an improbable come-from-behind victory.

The Obama administration says it met its December 1 deadline to improve the Healthcare.gov website, and some insurance professionals are still having trouble gathering patient information. NBC's Peter Alexander reports.

*** How to tell if the website is truly better: The Obama administration’s Nov. 30 deadline to have a better-functioning federal website for the “vast majority” of consumers has come and gone, and here’s what we know: The website is significantly better than what it was back in October (of course, that was a very low bar). Yet two months after its initial rollout, it’s still far from a perfect product, especially the information insurance companies are receiving on the backend. Beyond that, however, what you’re likely to see over the next several days are mostly anecdotes and spin. Democrats will point to examples of Americans having success with the website (and there are more and more of those). And Republicans will point to examples of continued problems (and those still exist). But to gauge if the website is truly better, there are two things to watch for in the next two weeks. One, are the insurance companies and government beginning to air their multi-million TV ad campaigns? “The big tell of if/when people finally believe it's working is when you see the states, insurance companies, etc., restart their ad buys and outreach programs that they put on hold to drive people to the site,” a Democrat paying close attention to health care’s implementation told First Read. Two, are skittish Democratic politicians -- especially those from red states -- a little less skittish than they were last month? Or more skittish? That will be another tell.

*** Website 2.0’s soft launch: Still, our read from the White House is that they are nervous. If anything, the Website Rollout 2.0 is a VERY soft launch. President Obama isn’t out there telling Americans to check out HealthCare.Gov; the health insurance companies aren’t bombarding Americans with TV ads; and Katy Perry isn’t tweeting to promote the site.

*** What’s better and what’s not: On Sunday, the Obama administration held a conference call to list the improvements to the website. They said page-response times are now under a second; error rates are below 1%; the site can serve 50,000 simultaneous users and 800,000 total visits a day; and the site’s “uptime” is now consistently above 90% -- up from a paltry 42.9% on Nov. 2. “The bottom line: HealthCare.Gov on Dec.1 is night and day from where it was on Oct. 1,” Jeffrey Zients, who is overseeing the administration’s website recovery effort, said on the conference call. But all of those statistics about the improvements were on the consumer-side end. As the Washington Post writes, “There were no details yet on the back end of the system, the part that sends out enrollment data to insurance plans when someone signs up for their products.” And then there are the enrollment numbers. Bloomberg News is reporting that about 100,000 people signed up for health insurance on the federal website in November -- a four-fold increase from October. So that’s the good news; the bad news is that’s still below where the administration hoped it would be at this point. That’s why it needs a well-functioning website -- at both the frontend and backend -- to begin driving up enrollment in December. Right now, it’s hard to imagine they’ll get to 1 million non-Medicaid enrollees by the end of the years, and even if they did get to 1 million, they’d still be behind schedule.

*** Watching Murray and Ryan: Meanwhile, we’re now 11 days away until House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R) and Senate Budget Committee Chair Patty Murray (D) are supposed to produce their conference report on a budget. And the chatter we’ve heard is there’s some optimism about reaching a very small deal. House Republicans would like to buy down sequester; Senate Republicans are less itchy on that. But what’s being debated between Ryan and Murray is a very small deal.

*** Watching the possible retirements: The holiday season also brings another story to watch: retirement season. It’s typically this time of year -- after Thanksgiving and into Christmas -- when some politicians announce they won’t be running for re-election for next year. It’s something to keep an eye on. We already know Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) is going to announce a GO or NO-GO for a seventh term sometime this month -- perhaps this week. But his announcement is expected; it is the unexpected to watch.

*** RNC declares racism has ended? For all of the political problems that President Obama and Democrats have had since the government shutdown ended in mid-October, it’s worth reminding everyone that the Republican Party’s long-term political problems -- especially when it comes to race and demographics -- are far from over. The latest example: The Republican National Committee yesterday tweeted the following: “Today we remember Rosa Parks’ bold stand and her role in ending racism.” Ending racism? That remark due ridicule on Twitter, and the RNC later issued this clarification: “Previous tweet should have read ‘Today we remember Rosa Parks' bold stand and her role in fighting to end racism.’”

*** Stories you might have missed over the holiday: Lastly, these are some of the stories you might have missed over the Thanksgiving holiday:

Tensions in Asia are high after the U.S. sent two B-52s to protest China’s attempt to control airspace over disputed Pacific islands, and Vice President Joe Biden is now headed to the region. 

- The New York Times reported that Hillary Clinton is wooing the African-American community (it’s the latest sign that she’s more than thinking about a presidential bid).

- And Obama said he might live in DC after his presidency ends -- due to the fact that youngest daughter Sasha would still be in high school come 2017.

Click here to sign up for First Read emails.
Text FIRST to 622639, to sign up for First Read alerts to your mobile phone.
Check us out on Facebook and also on Twitter. Follow us @chucktodd, @mmurraypolitics, @DomenicoNBC, @brookebrower