WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is no lip-biting, tear-streaking, chin-trembling apologist.
When he said he was sorry for the health care mess-up in an interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd, he performed the mea culpa as well as — if not better than — anyone in recent history. With Trumanesque resolve, he may as well have said, “The devalued dollar stops here.”
He’s sorry that some people have been inconvenienced by HealthCare .gov’s computer disaster. He’s sorry that some people have lost the policies he promised they could keep. He’s sorry that the Affordable Care Act wasn’t adequately “crafted.”
But is he sorry that he intentionally misled people? I must have missed that part. Here’s what he said:
“I am sorry that they [people] are finding themselves in this situation based on assurances they got from me. We’ve got to work hard to make sure that they know we hear them and that we’re going to do everything we can to deal with folks who find themselves in a tough position as a consequence of this.”
A well-delivered apology can often be enough to absolve the “misleader.” Key to redemption, however, is the sense that the apology is heartfelt and sincere. Most important, the apology must be specific to the affront. In this case, the sin isn’t the mess but the promise the White House knew as early as 2010 it couldn’t keep. Harsher critics would call it the deliberate intent to deceive.
I tend to be generous with benefits of doubt. Can I imagine a discussion in the White House wherein speechwriters and advisers told the president that full disclosure of the nuts and bolts — that millions would lose policies, which weren’t that good to begin with; that their rates would go up so insurance companies could cover the previously uninsured — would be too confusing?
Yes. I can imagine it because that’s exactly what happened, according to former White House speechwriter Jon Favreau. Moreover, the aides reckoned, the next several paragraphs that would be required by the truth would drag audiences through weeds considered too high for most attention spans. Such hubris puts one in mind of an exchange in Woody Allen’s “Manhattan”:
“This is an audience that’s raised on television, their standards have been systematically lowered over the years. These guys sit in front of their sets and the gamma rays eat the white cells of their brains out!”
Given such thinking, the truth was too much for TV. Not only would people be confused, but the tea-party crazies would re-enact the summer of 2009 when town-hall meetings turned into circuses of screeching malcontents.
If there’s one thing Barack Obama dislikes more than schmoozing Congress, it’s having to explain his brilliant ideas to mortals of lesser intelligence. Come to think of it, the latter may be viewed as justifying the former— at least from the president’s perspective. Thus, his advisers said, keep it simple for the stupids, though not necessarily with that precise wording.
So they did. So simple, in fact, that it was simply wrong. Did they really think no one would notice when they received cancellation notices and their premiums suddenly doubled?
The other rule of effective apologies is that they must come from authentic remorse rather than at the tip of a sword. Obama had no choice once caught and it was no longer possible to deny reality. That reality was further enhanced when 16 Senate Democrats, including 15 who are up for re-election in 2014, stormed the White House barricades to express their outrage to the president.
Commenting afterward, Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado sent out a release saying he urged the president to extend the enrollment period and ensure that the ACA insurance exchange website is secure.
The White House issued its own release, saying the meeting was “to discuss the progress that’s been made” and “hear their input on existing challenges.”
Well, that’s one way of putting it.
Some consent to regret is better than none, I suppose, but the ultimate test of an apology is whether it results in restored trust. It isn’t at all clear that Obama accomplished this with his exclusive, one-on-one interview. A straight, detailed talk directly to the American people would seem a better bet for the longer run.
Detailing the overhaul of a sixth of the economy may not make good TV, but the American people deserve better than “Sorry about the mess.”
True contrition swells all hearts.
Kathleen Parker’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.