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Column: Obama's apology (of sorts) for his 'keep your plan' promise

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about Affordable Health Care to volunteers at the Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Texas, November 6, 2013. REU
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about Affordable Health Care to volunteers at the Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Texas, November 6, 2013. REU

By Reihan Salam

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 canceled 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.

(Reihan Salam is a Reuters columnist. The views expressed are his own.)

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