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The Day Zach Galifianakis Saved Obamacare

Liberalism, they said back in the 1930s, was freedom plus groceries. In the Obama era, it was faulty websites plus hip celebrities.

Barack Obama delivers remarks about the error-plagued launch of the Affordable Care Act's online enrollment with guests in the Rose Garden of the White House, October 21, 2013 in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla / Getty

The website for Obamacare was launched on October 1, 2013.

That was the same day the 2013 Republican-led shutdown of the government began. The sixteen-day shutdown — which was essentially caused by Ted Cruz, who held up the passage of a spending bill because the Democrats wouldn’t agree to defund the Affordable Care Act they had just passed — failed. But one of the reasons the Republicans never paid a price for the shutdown was that it got completely overshadowed by the clusterfuck of the failed launch of the website, which was called Healthcare.gov.

The failure of Healthcare.gov caused no end of tsuris for the entire Obama administration, but especially for Brad Jenkins, who was the associate director of the Office of Public Engagement. Jenkins had lined up an army of celebrities to build support for Obamacare, which always depended, remember, on getting younger people to sign up for health care. But the celebrity industrial complex is only as strong as your website is working.

“Doing the blocking and tackling of getting celebrities to get the word out” for Healthcare.gov, explains Jenkins,

was going to be the way to go — that was my life for a year — but that all went to shit when the website wouldn’t work for two months. We literally got seventy celebrities on the first day of enrollment to tweet out Healthcare.gov. We got Lady Gaga backstage at her concert, and all of her [forty-eight] million followers went to a website that didn’t work. It was my worst nightmare.

That was October 2. The website wouldn’t even become minimally functional for another two months, in December. The celebs weren’t happy.

All of these celebrities were rip-shit pissed. Maybe they weren’t angry, but their publicists and managers were emailing me: What the fuck? So we burned that bridge. It took two months to fix the website, and it’s very hard to go back to Lady Gaga and ask her to tweet out Healthcare.gov again.

What to do, what to do? If they didn’t get those enrollments up, the whole program would collapse. And the only people enrolling — that is, willing to wait for hours on end while a dysfunctional website endlessly reloaded — were people who were sick or needed health care immediately. What the government needed was healthy people to enroll. But that wasn’t happening.

There was always the possibility of pursuing another celebrity route. How about going back to will.i.am and asking him to reprise that modern miracle of art and propaganda “Yes We Can” but for health care? Alas, they couldn’t swing that. “This is going to be impossible,” Jenkins feared. “It’s really hard to make health care sexy and cool.” Especially when your website sucks.

Then Jenkins had an idea. Or resurrected a very old idea. You see, apparently it had been a “dream project” of the Obama people — “for years,” says Kori Schulman, Obama’s deputy chief digital officer — to have Obama go on Zach Galifianakis’s satirical talk show Between Two Ferns. What if they got Obama on the show, allowed Galifianakis to make a little fun of him and his website, and use the platform to get all those young viewers to hear about Healthcare.gov and sign up?

The Obama team sent out Valerie Jarrett, Obama’s senior adviser, to LA. Jarrett’s people talked to Galifianakis’s people, who “made clear that it had to be like every other Between Two Ferns,” says Jenkins. The art of Between Two Ferns was not to be compromised. “It couldn’t be watered down,” Jenkins explains. “It couldn’t be some big Obamacare commercial.”

And here’s the craziest, most ridiculous part of this entire story: it worked. The show aired on March 11, 2014. It got 30 million views. Healthcare.gov got a 40 percent uptick in traffic, almost all of it from people who had never been to the website before. “It was the exact healthy demographic who would never think to go to Healthcare.gov or who had never heard of it,” says Jenkins. That’s how Obamacare got saved.

Liberalism, they said back in the 1930s, was freedom plus groceries. Now? It’s websites plus celebrities. Once upon a time, you got Social Security or Medicare just by turning sixty-five. Now you have to go to a website, which may or may not be working, and the visibility and viability of which depends upon the tweets of Lady Gaga.

Which makes the Republicans’ failure to repeal Obamacare all the more revealing: despite the program having a relatively new provenance, despite its amateur-ish rollout, despite the GOP having total control of the federal government, they still were not able to overturn the legislation. Though they’re certainly trying to inflict a slow death upon it.

In any event, this was Jenkins’s moment of triumph. (It’s prominently featured on his Wikipedia page.) Followed by his debriefing of Obama in “the Oval.”

Someone literally helped me clean baby-vomit stains off of my suit jacket before I went into the Oval, and I had maybe five minutes, way more time than we needed. But I walked him through it all. And not to sound hyperbolic, but no president ever went on a program like this — an internet-only, weird satirical show. [Not to take anything away from Jenkins’s sense of the epochal, earth-shattering events of world history, but he might want to google Richard Nixon and Laugh-In.] It was the biggest video of the year, and I was thinking, Wow, maybe he’ll give me a fist bump. It’d be this moment where Barack and I would become friends, and that did not happen. He smiled and congratulated me. Valerie was in the office as well, and he looked at her. “Val, I thought this was your idea?” And she was like, “No, no. This was Brad’s.” The biggest takeaway from all this was, he expected it. That decision was probably the least-important decision he had made in those twenty-four hours, whether to go on that stupid show. He’s dealing with life-and-death matters on national security.

After several weeks of reading various Obama memoirs, this is what I’ve come to learn and appreciate about the Obama Style. There’s always a story of mind-boggling inanity, often told by a man, who swings from fanboy ingénue (will he notice me? will he be my best friend? will we have breakfast together? maybe get ice cream?) to aw-shucks self-flagellation (silly me! what was I thinking! he’s the Leader of the Free World! he’s thinking about things like . . . drones, and killing people! he’s important! I’m nothing!), and is always cushioned by a warm helping of clichés (the baby vomit: Jenkins, you see, is an ordinary guy, just a parent like you and me, navigating everyday challenges like babies barfing all over you) and a cool appreciation of power: “the Oval.”

All of this appears in the very excellent Obama: An Oral History 2009-2017 by Brian Abrams, which I highly recommend.

But a version of the story apparently also appears in a book called West Wingers: Stories from the Dream Chasers, Change Makers, and Hope Creators Inside the Obama White House. (I’d love to see a will.i.am “Yes We Can” video about the decision to go with that title.) Which I can’t recommend because I haven’t read it (and probably won’t) but which Joe Biden calls “exceptional because of the people in it: ordinary citizens who did extraordinary work and always put the American people first. We have so much to learn from their stories.”