Opinion

Reihan Salam

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

Reihan Salam
Nov 8, 2013 17:59 UTC

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.

Carbon isn’t just America’s problem

Reihan Salam
Jun 28, 2013 20:04 UTC

Canada has 35 million people. Africa has just over 1 billion. But rather remarkably, Canada consumes about as much energy as all of Africa, according to Robert Bryce, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of Power Hungry, a provocative look at the global energy industry. As African economies grow, however, it is a safe bet that African energy consumption will grow with it, just as energy consumption has increased in China and India and around the world as hundreds of millions have escaped poverty. And that is the key challenge facing those who hope to do something about carbon emissions, including President Obama.

Despite the fact that less than a third of U.S. voters believe that climate policy ought to be a high priority, according to a Pew survey conducted in January, the president gave a sweeping climate policy address earlier this week. During the 2012 presidential election, Mitt Romney tried to gain traction by claiming that the Obama administration was waging a “war on coal,” a charge the president and his allies adamantly rejected. Yet there is no denying that President Obama has backed regulations that are making it more expensive to extract and burn coal, as Juliet Eilperin recently documented in the Washington Post. The really new development this week is that while the president had been working to make new coal plants unviable, he is now seeking to impose regulations on existing coal plants that will either lead to steep penalty payments or force premature shutdowns.

Though these steps are widely resented in coal country, they are accelerating a trend that has been driven in large part by the collapse in domestic natural gas prices, which in turn has been driven by a technological revolution in the development of shale gas resources. In 2012, the same year Romney and Obama were debating the war on coal, U.S. coal use fell by 12 percent. Not coincidentally, the International Energy Agency has reported that between 2006 and 2011, U.S. carbon emissions had fallen by 7.7 percent, the steepest reduction for any country or region in the world. To some extent, this decrease in emissions reflected a sluggish economy. But it also reflected the shale boom. The president’s war on coal is not without costs, and Republicans, particularly those representing coal states, will fight it vigorously. But for now, at least, it is a war that U.S. energy consumers can afford, and it will contribute to America’s ongoing decarbonization. The deeper challenge for the president and his allies is that while domestic coal use is declining, global coal use is increasing at a stunning pace.

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