President Obama Apologizes

by Reihan Salam

From Chuck Todd of NBCNews.com:

President Obama said Thursday that he is “sorry” that some Americans are losing their current health insurance plans as a result of the Affordable Care Act, despite his promise that no one would have to give up a health plan they liked.

“I am sorry that they are finding themselves in this situation based on assurances they got from me,” he told NBC News in an exclusive interview at the White House.

“We’ve got to work hard to make sure that they know we hear them and we are going to do everything we can to deal with folks who find themselves in a tough position as a consequence of this.”

Obama’s comments come 10 days after NBC News’ Lisa Myers reported that the administration has known since the summer of 2010 that millions of Americans could lose their insurance under the law.  Obama has made repeated assurances that “if you like your health plan, you will be able to keep your health plan” with Obamacare.

This is really something. Defenders of the Affordable Care Act had already pivoted to claiming that while the law was causing disruption, conservatives would cause more disruption. Yet members and veterans of the Obama administration found themselves in an increasingly awkward position as they stuck to the script that the president’s pledge wasn’t even at least somewhat misleading — see, for example, Ezekiel Emanuel’s recent appearance opposite James Capretta on Fox News Sunday.

On one level, I find the president’s (begrudging) candor refreshing. But as Peter Suderman has observed, the notion that the ACA would hold those who were content with their insurance arrangements harmless was central to the political case for it, as risk-aversion among the currently insured was the chief reason earlier universal coverage efforts had foundered. The fact that many insurance policies would be cancelled was a predictable consequence of the law’s new insurance regulations, and members of the Obama administration had anticipated this outcome during the ACA debate, as the Wall Street Journal has established.

Keith Hennessey, who served in a number of senior economic policy rules during the Bush administration, has written a scathing critique of the “keep your plan” promise, and the process that allowed it to become a staple of President Obama’s case for the law. One reason why such a promise would never have passed muster in the Bush White House, according to Hennessey, is that members of the Bush administration assumed an adversarial relationship with the press:

As a practical matter we also knew that any overstatement would do far more damage to the President than any temporary rhetorical advantage it might offer. We knew, with certainty, that even the slightest inaccuracy would immediately generate aggressive questions from a press corps that mostly leaned against us. The New York Times at the first opportunity unless others beat them to the punch. We knew we’d then have to help the Press Secretary defend the President’s statement under repeated and ruthless attacks from a press corps that was constantly probing for such weaknesses. If this sounds a tad paranoid, remember the old saying: Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. Our relationship with the White House press corps was quite different than that facing Team Obama.

The internal honesty and accuracy norm, supplemented by a healthy fear of an unfriendly press corps, was reinforced by the pain we felt when we made occasional mistakes. The most visible of these were the “16 words” about uranium in the President’s 2003 State of the Union address. That statement was technically true but based on flawed intelligence. Because it was so important to subsequent policy, this error later subjected President Bush to fierce criticism. Neither I nor anyone on our policy team wanted to take any risk of a similar event in the economic lane, so we fought as hard as necessary to eliminate such risk.

Hennessey’s implicit point is that the Obama administration wasn’t accustomed to the same degree of scrutiny from agenda-setting national media outlets. Given the resources national media organizations devote to “fact-checking” the statements made by candidates and officeholders, it is remarkable that the “keep your plan” promise didn’t attract more attention outside of the right-wing press, where the notion that the “keep your plan” promise couldn’t be kept was a commonplace argument.

My (I’m sure imperfect) recollection of the ACA debate was that former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin would occasionally post inflammatory Facebook messages, and these messages were characterized as the chief case against the Affordable Care Act; conservative media outlets and think tanks published critiques of the bill’s substantive provisions, and these were largely ignored. When I put it that way, I think, “that sounds insane, and surely I’m missing something important.” It really is true that much of the opposition to the ACA was characterized by over-the-top claims. But real-world objections received remarkably short shrift, perhaps because covering apocalyptic opposition to the law made for compelling narrative while critical engagement with the law did not. Or it could be that I’m being unfair to agenda-setting national media outlets. In the run-up to the Iraq War, the Knight-Ridder chain of newspapers was famously skeptical of the arguments raised by the Bush administration concerning the wisdom of an armed intervention, and the challenges such an intervention would entail. It’s not clear to me that there was a Knight-Ridder chain of the ACA, and I say that knowing full well that a war and a coverage expansion effort are very different enterprises.

The president has (sort of) apologized for a misleading statement. But I wonder if there are policy scholars who should apologize for their support of coverage expansion ahead of their obligation to inform the public, and editors who should apologize for encouraging their reporters to cover the sensational to the near-exclusion of the substantive. And I definitely think conservatives who made apocalyptic arguments against the law should reckon with the fact that a more judicious case might have proven more credible and convincing.