WASHINGTON -- During his tenure behind the podium, the issue that vexed White House Press Secretary Jay Carney the most was the debacle of HealthCare.gov, he said.
Speaking Thursday morning to reporters assembled at the Christian Science Monitor breakfast series, Carney called the problematic launch of the president’s signature legislative initiative “the most difficult period since I’ve been a press secretary.” He was discussing tactical challenges as opposed to policy setbacks. On policy setbacks, what hurt the most was the failure to respond to the Newtown shooting, he has said.
The reason HealthCare.gov haunted Carney more than the other scandals from his tenure was that “this one was completely of our doing, completely our responsibility,” he said, making it far tougher for him to spin the administration's side.
“It made a lot of us worried about what would happen if we couldn’t fix it, in terms of the goal of expanding the availability of health insurance to millions of Americans,” he said. “And obviously it was a concern politically if it didn’t work out. And in contrast to a lot of the sort of issues that burned brightly but burned out, this was a sustained bad-news story for some time. So I remember that as being the biggest challenge.”
After the breakfast concluded, Carney told The Huffington Post that the crisis in Syria also proved professionally vexing. Those two crises stood in contrast to others, such as IRS targeting, NSA leaks and the attacks in Benghazi, which had greater degrees of nuance and more evident grounds for pushback.
“Unlike a lot of things that a president has to deal with and a White House has to deal with," he said of HealthCare.gov, "this was on us."
Though HealthCare.gov proved to be the most daunting issue he faced from the podium, Carney also called it the most rewarding.
“It was one of the best moments too,” he said. “As we gradually became confident that this website was going to be fixed, as we became aware gradually that our way-revised-down expectations of what the numbers would be were too low and, in fact, that they were going to get better. And of course when they hit 8 million, that was one very good day.”
Carney, who was named press secretary in January 2011, held his last White House briefing on Wednesday. Upon taking the job, he said, he was shocked to find out just how poorly prepared he was for its rigors and demands. On several occasions, he framed the interaction between the press corps and the White House communication office as a daily battle, using phrases like “winning the exchange from the podium.”
Though the forum was contentious and often overly theatrical, Carney said he did not want to do away with the daily briefing, just add some reforms to its format.
“We should keep the briefing in some form,” he told The Huffington Post after the breakfast.
Carney said he had not made a decision about what he would do next professionally, and he pushed back on reports that he was considering a gig at CNN. A book does not appear to be in the offing.
“I didn’t keep a journal,” Carney said, adding how difficult the book-writing process appeared and that he was not eager to do it.