Obama’s apology (of sorts) for his “keep your plan” promise

By Reihan Salam
November 8, 2013

This week, President Barack Obama offered an apology (of sorts) to Americans who believed him when he repeatedly assured the public that anyone who liked their current health insurance plan could keep it under the Affordable Care Act. In an interview with Chuck Todd of NBC News, the president said, “I am sorry that they are finding themselves in this situation based on assurances they got from me.”

Up until now, the president and his allies have insisted that the “keep your plan” promise had been misinterpreted, and that the plans that were being cancelled were “junk plans” that belonged on the scrap heap, a claim that many insurance beneficiaries found objectionable. Keith Hennessey, a veteran of the Bush White House, constructed a flowchart of the “keep your plan” defenses made by the president and his allies, the complexity of which spoke to the president’s political dilemma. One of the architects of the Affordable Care Act, Ezekiel Emanuel, struggled to defend the veracity of the “keep your plan” promise in a recent episode of Fox News Sunday. So the president’s apology will surely come as a relief to those tasked with maintaining that the “keep your plan” promise wasn’t at least slightly misleading.

The president’s apology didn’t prevent him from making other misleading statements during the same interview. Once again, he insisted that the disruption of existing insurance arrangements applied only to people in the individual insurance market, which represents a relatively small share of insurance beneficiaries. But the Affordable Care Act imposes new regulations on employer-sponsored plans, which have the potential to disrupt the insurance arrangements of many more Americans, and the law’s grandfathering provisions are quite narrow. Fortunately for the president, the apology itself will draw enough attention to distract from this looming issue, which could prove far more politically potent than what some are describing, perhaps prematurely, as the slow-motion collapse of the individual market.

This is not the first presidential apology of the modern era. Conservatives have long accused Barack Obama of apologizing for America, hence the title of Mitt Romney’s mostly-overlooked campaign tome, No Apology. For example, in a Cairo address designed to reframe the U.S. relationship with the Islamic world, the president acknowledged that the U.S. government had aided in the overthrow of a democratically-elected Iranian government. Given that these events had transpired before the president was born, this wasn’t the kind of apology that involved an acknowledgment of personal wrongdoing. It was more like President Clinton’s 1997 apology to the victims of the notorious Tuskegee experiment, or President George H.W. Bush’s apology to the Japanese Americans interned by the U.S. government during World War Two.

At a Rose Garden press conference in May of 2004, President George W. Bush recounted an apology he offered to Jordan’s King Abdullah, after the abuse at Abu Ghraib became public: “I told him I was sorry for the humiliation suffered by the Iraqi prisoners and the humiliation suffered by their families.” But this was an apology on behalf of the machinery of government that had failed to stem prisoner abuse, rather than an acknowledgment of a personal failing. Had President Bush accepted the premises of his most scathing critics, he might have apologized for his poor judgment in prosecuting the war, or for misleading the public about the threat Iraq posed to the U.S. and the wider world. An apology of that kind would have been unprecedented, but of course President Bush rejected the notion that he had erred.

One of the issues raised by President Obama’s apology (of sorts) to Americans facing the disruption of their current insurance arrangements is that it’s not clear that the Affordable Care Act would have passed had the “keep your plan” promise not been front and center. When President Bill Clinton tried to build support for universal coverage in the 1990s, he faced withering criticism from conservatives and moderates over the fact that many current insurance beneficiaries would see substantial changes in their insurance arrangements. Because most Americans were content with their existing coverage, for better or worse, this threat of disruption ultimately proved politically fatal, dividing Democrats and handing Republicans a winning issue.

In contrast, the Obama administration succeeded in keeping all but a handful of congressional Democrats in their corner, in no small part because of the president’s insistence that those who liked their plan could keep it. According to a new report from Colleen McCain Nelson, Peter Nicholas, and Carol E. Lee of the Wall Street Journal, members of the Obama administration debated whether the president should be quite so clear-cut, as his aides recognized that while people with “good” insurance (in their view) could keep it, people with “bad” insurance (also in their view) might not be able to do so. It seems hard to deny that this was a pretty big lacuna, since it’s obvious that not everyone will dislike the plans the president thinks they should dislike.

So will the president apologize for having misled the public in service to what he saw as the noble cause of covering the uninsured? I doubt it.

PHOTO: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about Affordable Health Care to volunteers at the Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Texas, November 6, 2013. REUTERS/Larry Downing 

16 comments

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The reality of government policy is complicated.

Complex realities described accurately and completely don’t make for tidy sound-bites…

Perhaps the only solution is to educate the electorate to look beyond the sound-bites, the rhetoric etc.; and to train a civil service of bureaucrats that understands how to help the politicians write better laws.

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

As a U.S. citizen, I do not need affirmation from any politician that they lied. I know a lie when I see a lie. If the offending politician does not own up to the lie, I see that too. This culture of “ordinary people lie, politicians misspeak” is not a reality that regular folk believe in. To the contrary, it confirms that the “misspeaker” is a professional liar.

Posted by theyLie2U | Report as abusive

That was not an apology? Washington is a complete failure from the top down. Take away their elite healthcare and benefits, and stick them with the cost of Obamacare since they do such poor work for us. Anybody in the private sector would be fired for such complete failure. Good thing they don’t have real jobs!

Posted by usa.wi.vet.4q | Report as abusive

@matthewslyman,

So from across the pond it is easy to see that all America must do is “educate the electorate” and train (re-train?) our present legions of bureaucrats to write with greater clarity? Gee, how could we not have picked up on that?

I suggest it easier and wiser to instead reduce our electorate to those who could pass a “reasonable knowledge of the issues” test, fire a majority of our union government drones incapable of meaningful purpose or service, and make elected representatives hire professionals (“scribes”?) in private practice to write legislation in which they may have no personal interest to sway their honesty, objectivity and integrity.

I know. When pigs fly.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Okay – the President should have said that those with individual healthcare packages that they like will be able to keep them, provided (key word here) that those packages include all the new benefits stipulated in the Affordable Health Care Act/Obamacare.

Obamacare does, indeed, need to be repaired/improved/clarified – but not trashed. It is covering those who don’t have insurance through their employers, Medicare or Medicaid, no? As to the website, how did we ever sign up for private or government insurance before computers?

Healthcare costs have been rising for at least 20 years that I’m aware of – the time I worked for a relatively small company, during which I saw costs rise continuously/precipitously, amazed at how much the company paid to insure its employees – and, to reiterate, that’s not what this bill seeks to cover. Each year, the company Personnel Officer in charge of such went “shopping,” trying to get the best possible rates for both company and employee; we then had to choose a plan within the insurance program offered, as what we had the year before was not necessarily on the table for the coming year. Such is life; such is the way insurance has worked for quite some time now. Most of us don’t notice because our companies pick up the greater part of the cost, which is getting harder and harder for them to do so, and offer higher salaries…

It would be great if we had a better healthcare assurance system for the whole country, for each citizen, but we don’t; a one-payer system smacks of “socialism,” i.e. “communism,” to those for whom those words strike fear and trembling – and an almost complete lack of ability to think. Brain freeze.

Republicans in Congress made sure that none of them participated in crafting/legislating an affordable health care bill. Why?

Some say we don’t want to pay for what we don’t use, but we do that all the time – I hope never to have to use my health insurance, my auto insurance, my home insurance, but I pay for it, anyway, just in case, as do many others. I’ve worked for two brilliant people, one who happened to have crippling arthritis, another who was legally blind. Did they use more health insurance than I? You betcha! Would I rather pay and not use it (i.e. remain healthy), knowing that I was helping to pay for their use? You betcha!

Posted by jlj | Report as abusive

jlj, you’re missing the point. You pay for insurance to transfer the risk from you to the insurance company. Why should I pay for things that are no risk to me. I’m older, my spouse and I don’t need maternity care coverage. We don’t need drug or mental health care coverage. Where I live I’m not at risk for a flood so why buy flood coverage? Based on your logic I should pay for meteor coverage or airplane crashing into my house coverage, just because it might happen to somebody else. Insurance is the transfer of genuine realistic probable risk, not the confiscation of money.

Posted by TOTL | Report as abusive

Insurance is a social contract. I pay a premium, figuring I might need it; the insurance company agrees to a payout, figuring I probably won’t. If, indeed, I do, not only the cost of my insurance, but that of others may well go up. Interestingly, if a disaster occurs in a particular part of the country, the federal government steps up to pay with our taxes. Such a deal! Especially if you think you might be hit by a meteor…

Posted by jlj | Report as abusive

As long as the public is amused by shenanigans in Washington and is too dumb read the fine print it will continue. Both the good (ones that will continue)and bad plans before had the “no pore existing condition” cause. Which means the plans where no good for long term illness like heart disease and asthma, etc. So the public is gullible to all lying smiling faces not just to Washington.

Posted by Samrch | Report as abusive

As camel is said to be a horse put together by a committee. In the case of Obama care the idea was not just a horse put together by a committee, it was a camel put together by every special interest group congress could find.

In spite of the fact most old plans where very limited by things like “no existing condition cause”, limited no drug coverage, some sort death panel (cost approval panel). Congress decided stick in mental health care and drug conciliating in the initial offering requirements. People where not really ready or use to paying to for comprehensive physical ailment coverage. Naturally there will be objections. For starting a new plan the bear minimum should be a bear minimum but without the smoke in old system like a the “no preexisting condition” causes.

Posted by Samrch | Report as abusive

There is no way he could promise I could keep my old plan. My insurance company has changed my plan every year except one in the past five years.

Posted by CharleneKing | Report as abusive

I got my insurance cancellation letter on Friday from Anthem Blue Cross. I’ve been insured there for years and love the plan. I’m 33 healthy and live in CO (one of the healthiest states in the nation). I now have the option to buy a plan on connect4healthcolorado.com. I was paying $178/month and now will be paying $270/month. I had a $3000 deductible and will now have a $3500 deductible. I had a PPO allowing me to see a specialist without a referral from a primary care physician and will now have a HMO which requires a referral. Oh and I don’t qualify for any tax credits (because I’m a party of 1 making over $40,000). President Obama, I liked my plan and won’t get to keep it. Your apology is not accepted.

Posted by ald123 | Report as abusive

That was NO apology. Why can’t the liberals and any Democrat simply tell the truth? Obama LIED and LIED and LIED and he KNEW he was lying and now after being caught, Democrats and their blind supporters cannot seem to admit the truth and how dare anyone call that miss-mash softball interview by NBC an apology by Obama? Can’t these people for ONCE get out of bed with Obama and at least for once in their life tell the TRUTH?

Posted by N369RM | Report as abusive

People in business and universities have been fired due to resume padding to get the job.

Car dealers and mortgage brokers are fined and/or jailed for false promises to buyers leading to services not wanted and higher fees than agreed upon.

Athletes in various sports have their careers ended and records undone for use of performance enhancing drugs.

Should politians not be held to same level of accountability where in this case Obama, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and many others said (1) ACA is not a tax but Supreme Court found it is constitutional only because it is a tax (2) You can keep your plan PERIOD. (3) Employer sponsored plans will not be affected by ACA but my employer sponsored plan just received a letter that several ACA fees on all insured members will add 4% surcharge on premiums in 2014?

Based on the misrepresentation or plain lies to win a vote for ACA and to win an election, Obama and others should be impeached or dismissed from office using same standards that apply to others who are not politicians.

Posted by SeekingLeaders | Report as abusive

Obama is the King of Deception on many things. Most often, his base finds a way to hide behind Obstruction or Bush43 but the truth is there for those who take the time to look.
He simply isn’t who many wanted him to be.

Posted by SaveRMiddle | Report as abusive

I worded that so poorly. Embarrassing.

Posted by SaveRMiddle | Report as abusive

Robert Reich’s article in HP today states that Obama “misled” people. Here we go again – we need a new dictionary for “government speak”:

mislead – lie
least untruthful statement – lie
transparency – no definition since it doesn’t exist

Posted by AZreb | Report as abusive