What FDR would say about Obamacare’s botched launch

FDR signs the Social Security Act on Aug. 14, 1935, as its godmother Frances Perkins looks on. He knew what to say about glitches.
(Social Security Administration)

Yes, Obamacare’s website debacle is a problem for the healthcare reform program and for many customers still unable to apply for and secure health insurance. But no, it’s not the first time a big government program experienced birth pangs.

The go-to source on how to manage the launch of a major federal undertaking, of course, is Franklin D. Roosevelt, who launched dozens of such programs during the New Deal--several of them every bit as revolutionary as the Affordable Care Act.

As I mentioned in a just-published interview with the New Republic’s Jen Kirby connected with my book about the New Deal, the rollouts of many of these programs were not without glitches. Some, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps, were left in the hands of state and local officials to manage. In some states, as a result, the CCC institutionalized racism by denying desperately needed job slots to black youths. 

Other programs were cut back at their inception to save money--a strategy that only imposed costs that had to be addressed later. That happened to Social Security, which was envisioned as a universal pension program. At the last minute, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau demanded that huge swaths of the American workforce be cut from the program, especially farmhands and domestic workers. They didn’t start getting added back to the program until the Truman administration. Today almost every wage-earner in America is covered.


But FDR’s real gift was for communicating to voters the value of his programs, and putting their launch problems in perspective. The best example of this was his response to conservatives who complained that his Works Progress Administration, the biggest work relief program of his time, was rife with inefficiency and wasteful spending. Here’s how he responded in a Fireside Chat on April 28, 1935

“When an enterprise of this character is extended over more than three thousand counties throughout the Nation, there may be occasional instances of inefficiency, bad management, or misuse of funds. When cases of this kind occur, there will be those, of course, who will try to tell you that the exceptional failure is characteristic of the entire endeavor. It should be remembered that in every big job there are some imperfections. There are chiselers in every walk of life, there are those in every industry who are guilty of unfair practices;...but long experience in Government has taught me that the exceptional instances of wrong-doing in Government are probably less numerous than in almost every other line of endeavor. ...

“It is time to provide a smashing answer for those cynical men who say that a Democracy cannot be honest and efficient....I, therefore, hope you will watch the work in every corner of this Nation. Feel free to criticize. Tell me of instances where work can be done better, or where improper practices prevail. Neither you nor I want criticism conceived in a purely fault-finding or partisan spirit, but I am jealous of the right of every citizen to call to the attention of his or her Government examples of how the public money can be more effectively spent for the benefit of the American people.”

That’s an example of FDR reminding the American people that, to employ a cliche, Rome wasn’t built in a day--but that entrenched interests who don’t like change will seize any chance to ask why not. If President Obama needs a guide for how to answer those who argue that the flawed rollout of a complicated website mean that a priceless chance to improve the lives of millions of Americans should be scrapped, he should look to his political forebear.