Strategy Anatomy: Plays Behind the Obamacare Rollout

In his 1999 political bestseller, Hardball, commentator Chris Matthews urges embattled politicos to hang a lantern on their problems... before someone else does. His nip-bad-news-in-the-bud advice inspired the play we call the Lantern. It's the one stratagem that Barack Obama may wish he'd run to lower expectations for his disastrous launch of Obamacare and to inoculate his offices from further fallout.


When corporations and administrations get in a fix, conventional wisdom is to pat down the negatives. (Rarely do they leverage them, but that's another story.) And if they're listening to crisis counselors, the other imperative is to get ahead of the bad news. In any case, two play sets in our system of influence strategies are at the heart of such efforts:

REFLEXIVE PLAYS These are the influence strategies that are reflexively and widely run to make bad news go away. Mostly, they are diversionary and framing plays designed to mollify customers or constituents. Think of the Gulf Coast oil spill and how BP ran them through: Pauses to calibrate the crisis, Deflects to buy time, Red Herrings to expand or shift blame to subcontractors, Recasts and Filters to explain on their terms and timeline the accident's causes, effects and circumstances. This is the playbook of the publicly cornered. It was the Soviet's progression with Chernobyl, Nike's with child labor, and Bill Clinton's with Lewinsky.

COUNTERINTUITIVE PLAYS Of course it's become clear that courts of public opinion are as powerful as courts of law, so playbooks are evolving from the reflexive to the counterintuitive. Matthews-like Lantern plays, which help CEOs and politicos tell their secrets first, are coming into vogue. Think of the dark horse 2012 presidential candidate Herman Cain and his proactive warning to cable news outlets of impending kiss-and-tell accounts. Of course mistakes and scandals unfold on their own, so savvy playmakers employ the strategy of Parliamentary debaters, the Disco, to make amends, apologies, admissions, etc. Whatever it takes to come clean. Like a dance, the Disco is designed to take one step back then two steps forward. Think of Ronald Reagan when in 1987 he admitted to having traded arms for hostages in the Iran-Contra affair. To put it behind him, he said, "Now what should happen when you make a mistake is this: You take your knocks, you learn your lessons, and then you move on."

With the exception of the Lantern, these are the plays that the Obama administration has run to bend and blunt the accounts of its still-born ACA launch -- counters to Call Outs from GOP Obamacare-haters and Mirrors from skeptics and healthcare experts.

Clearly, Obama and his surrogates at HSS have known for months of the FUBAR of their ACA designs. What plays have they run? You guessed it...

PAUSES - Statistics of sign-ups and give-ups have been slow-walked to media.

DEFLECTS - Remember, they have sought to reassure us, We've still got a few months to get it right.

RED HERRINGS - Obama defenders have claimed that Tea Party activists are fueling this crisis.

RECASTS - Glitches and bugs are normal, officials have explained about the process and processes of website programming.

FILTERS - While the specter of the individual mandate hangs over the uninsured, there's been more talk about the benefits than penalties of signing up.

DISCOS - Obama himself has conceded, Reagan-Iran-Contra style, that there's "no sugar-coating" the disrepair of his launched legislation.

Crisis managers will use this case for years as testament to a preventable disaster. Hanging a lantern on the problem would have been a good idea. But then maybe Obama and his bureaucrats didn't really know how bad it was going to be.