Obama's Race for the Cure

The President's second term may hinge on how fast his health care reform can recover

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Photo-illustration by Sean Freeman for TIME

A good President needs a big comfort zone. He should be able to treat enemies as opportunities, appear authentic in joy and grief, stay cool under the hot lights. But humility doesn't come naturally to those who decide they are qualified to run the free world. So the sign that the Obama presidency had reached a turning point came not when his poll numbers sank or his allies shuddered or the commentariat went hunting for the right degree of debacle to compare to the rollout of Obamacare.

It happened when he started apologizing. In triplicate. For not knowing what was going on in his own Administration. For failing to prevent his signature achievement from detonating in prime time. For not telling the whole truth when he promised people that Obamacare would not touch them without permission: "If you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan."

Obama's supporters can decry a "feeding frenzy," but this is a critical moment for a President whose agenda for a second term amounted to little more than being not as lame as the other guy. The HealthCare.gov website may or may not get fixed on deadline, the senior staff may be booted and rebooted, but it is already too late to avoid a pageant of media scrutiny, Republican merriment, a rebuke even from Bill Clinton and a host of existential questions: Can this policy be saved? What is left of Obama's second term if it is consumed by fixing an unpopular policy from the first? How could a White House appear so confident and incompetent at the same time? Precious time and political capital had already been spent explaining revelations of spying at home and abroad, a sudden reversal of policy toward Syria, a divisive battle over negotiations with Iran and a rolling budget battle that has slowed the recovery and shaken consumer confidence. Already embattled, the West Wing team failed to prevent or prepare the President for the health care brawl and instead made multiple public and private assurances that all was on track. That left Obama sounding like a disappointed fan in a bad bleacher seat watching his presidency be pummeled at a distance. "I think we have to ask ourselves some hard questions inside the White House," he admits.

At another time, the national dismay might be less of a concern. But we've reached the point where voters boo whichever party is center stage. Faith in the federal government is at its lowest point ever. When the Republicans diverted the nation's attention with the government shutdown, their approval numbers tanked. Now that the spotlight is on the President and the Democrats, theirs are falling fast; in a Washington Post/ABC News poll, 57% now say they oppose the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Obama's popularity has hit an all-time low as for the first time he faces disapproval not just of his performance but also of his personal credibility. Trust was the lotion that let him pursue policies people didn't necessarily like, because they liked him.

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