Obama administration Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius submitted her resignation yesterday, as Scott Shackford already noted. For the last four years, Sebelius has been the face of Obamacare, and the New York Times story on her exit strongly implies that, while she wasn’t technically fired, she left at least in part because the administration had lost confidence in her ability to deliver following the spectacularly botched rollout of Healthcare.gov last fall.
Even the statement by White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough on her replacement, current Office of Management and Budget Chief Syliva Burwell, sounds more like a knife in the back than a fond farewell. “The president wants to make sure we have a proven manager and relentless implementer in the job over there, which is why he is going to nominate Sylvia,” McDonough said on Thursday.
The clear implication here is that Sebelius was none of those things. And certainly, judging by last October’s botched launch of the federal health insurance exchange, it’s an easy and obvious judgment to make about her work for the administration.
But it’s also worth asking what Sebelius really did as HHS Secretary. She was widely known as the front person for Obamacare, but much of the administrative effort was actually run through Nancy-Ann DeParle, who until last January ran the White House Office of Health Reform.
Sebelius wasn’t Obama’s first choice for the job. The president initially nominated Tom Daschle, a move that he eventually admitted was a screw-up when reports surfaced that Daschle owed $140,000 in back taxes.
From the outside, then, Sebelius mostly seemed to play the role of a glorified flack for the president’s health care policies, dutifully making the rounds and mouthing talking points as necessary. And she wasn’t even good at this. Her responses at congressional hearings were so canned that they might have come from a phone-mail system, and they occasionally revealed that she didn’t quite know what she was talking about. Her speeches were ho-hum pablum, when they weren’t being quietly edited after the fact due to unverifiable claims.When she went on offense during the 2012 campaign, she was often wrong or misleading. She engaged in ethically dubious fundraising for outside groups that support Obamacare.
In the last few months, as a spokesperson for the health law, she’s made a fool of herself and the administration. She kicked off the launch of the exchanges with a disastrous, embarrassing interview on The Daily Show, hosted insurance sign-up events where no one could sign up for insurance, and responded to basic questions about Obamacare’s continued poor poll numbers with blank silence. Fitting, I suppose, given that Sebelius has never been one for worthwhile answers.
Maybe—probably—Sebelius doesn’t deserve all or even the majority of the blame for the administration’s health law screw-ups. But regardless of her impact, as the most visible official associated with the law aside from President Obama, she deserved to be shown the door—or at least be given the opportunity to show herself out.