On Wednesday afternoon, a bunch of twentysomethings were summoned to the White House to hear an infomercial from Barack Obama himself. He was pitching health insurance.
"The product is good. It's affordable," the President told them. "… We're going to keep working through any glitches, problems that may come up." He urged them to spread the word. "So if you're a student body president, set up a conference on campus … If you're a bartender, have a happy hour … Post something on your Facebook or Instagram."
Mr. Obama desperately needs healthy young people to sign on to Obamacare in order to subsidize the old and sick. But the salesman-in-chief can't close the deal. His approval rating among millennials has sunk to a dismal 41 per cent, according to a new poll conducted by Harvard University's Institute of Politics. More than half of those under 25 would like to throw him out of office. Fifty-seven per cent of millennials say they disapprove of Obamacare, and less than a third say they're likely to sign up.
The Affordable Care Act was going to save the world. But now, the law's supporters will be happy just to save the furniture. They used to talk about transformation. Today they're simply hoping for survival.
The botched website was an unforced catastrophe. But that's not the real problem with Obamacare. The real problem, as dozens of thoughtful commentators have concluded, is the law itself. Obamacare is a massive policy experiment that seeks to remake one-sixth of the U.S. economy – a body that's so fantastically complex, with so many players and so many moving parts, that nobody can possibly understand how they all interact. Tweak one part, and other parts will behave in unpredictable ways. Pull on a thread and half the sweater may unravel. Even Max Baucus, the Democratic Senate finance chairman, has warned that implementing a law so complicated could be a "train wreck."
The biggest threat to Obamacare is not Republicans. The biggest threat is Murphy's Law, along with its corollary, the Law of Unintended Consequences. These are the most powerful laws in the world. They are even more powerful than the Affordable Care Act, and they are the nemesis of all master plans. Evidently, the President and his merry band of wonks had never heard of them.
Mr. Obama is in a tough spot. It's not just that he looks incompetent – it's that he looks deceitful. He told people they could keep their plans, their doctors and their hospitals, and that their insurance payments wouldn't go up. That turns out not to be true for a lot of people, who feel duped. If they'd known what Obamacare would really mean, they wouldn't have supported it. And the worst isn't over. Hundreds of thousands of employers still have to make decisions about their coverage. And if the millennials don't get on board, prices will go up more.
But Obamacare is much more than a test of a presidency. It's a test of whether big government can solve big problems. And so far, the answer is very bad for the entire liberal enterprise. As venerable left-leaning pundit Thomas Edsall wrote in The New York Times, "Cumulatively, recent developments surrounding the rollout of Obamacare strengthen the most damaging conservative portrayals of liberalism and of big government – that on one hand government is too much a part of our lives, too invasive, too big, too scary, too regulatory, too in your face, and on the other hand it is incompetent, bureaucratic and expropriatory."
This is a cautionary tale for Canada, where progressive politicians are fond of big ideas that will fix (fill in social problem here). It should resonate throughout Ontario, where the Liberal government's two signature policies – to transform energy and early education – have turned into expensive failures. It should be studied very carefully by the two progressive federal parties, who may find that voters are increasingly skeptical of government promises to cure whatever ails us.
The truth is that no matter how many smart people are in charge, governments can't run things very well. Here in Canada, they run education and health-care systems that are quite expensive, but no more than pretty good. (That's the Canadian way. U.S. health care and education span the extremes, from superb to awful, while we're content to settle in the mediocre middle.) The basic difference between progressives and conservatives (not Republican or Harper conservatives, but the Burkean kind) is that progressives are convinced that rational planners with good intentions and advanced degrees can transform society. Conservatives are more doubtful. They'd be happy if governments just collected taxes and fixed the roads.
Mr. Obama lost the kids because he promised the moon and couldn't deliver. The kids know that even Facebook and Instagram can't fix what's wrong with Obamacare. So now he's trying to change the channel. Now he's going to tackle economic inequality, which he calls "the defining challenge of our time." But this time, the kids have tuned out.