The politics of an apology
By: Jonathan Allen
November 8, 2013 05:23 PM EST
President Barack Obama is now acknowledging that his if-you-like-your-plan-you-can-keep-it promise shared something in common with “bad apple” insurance policies: You had to read the fine print.
If the White House is lucky, his apology will help the president maintain credibility with the public and allow him to pivot away from an effort to play down the impact of millions of Americans seeing their health insurance plans canceled after he promised that wouldn’t happen.
Before that, Obama was explaining — and he was losing.
While the failure of the HealthCare.gov website cast doubt on the administration’s competence, the broken promise threatened to damage the president’s personal credibility — the trump card that has saved him in the darkest days of two presidential campaigns and five years in the Oval Office.
He was in a bind: To preserve trust, he had to distance himself either from the promise or the policy. He chose the latter, framing plan cancellations as an outcome he didn’t expect. I’m sorry, he said. I’ll fix it.
“The majority of folks will end up being better off,” Obama told NBC News on Thursday night. “But even though it’s a small percentage of folks who may be disadvantaged, you know, it means a lot to them. And it’s scary to them. And I am sorry that they are finding themselves in this situation based on assurances they got from me.”
He vowed to try to find a solution for consumers in the individual insurance market who are both ineligible for subsidies and facing a premium increase — one that wouldn’t require the act of an increasingly peeved Congress.
It was a stunning turn, not just in Obama’s rhetoric but in his policy. His signature health care law aimed to cancel low-grade plans to provide better coverage for the under-insured — too often, he has said, Americans find out their insurance doesn’t cover their medical bills only after they get sick.
The apology didn’t sit well with some Democrats on Capitol Hill, who feel that there’s now another layer between them and communicating the benefits of the law to the public.
“Democrats woke up this morning hoping the top headline would be either the Toronto mayor’s crack-smoking rant or the very positive jobs report, not an apology from the president,” said one miffed senior House Democratic aide.
But Obama was also facing pressure from another cohort of Democrats to come up with a strategy to extricate himself – and congressional allies who had repeated his words — from the political flypaper of a broken promise.
For two weeks, Obama and his aides tried to finesse the point. Worried that television news reports would falsely alarm the vast majority of the population that would experience no change in their plans, they suggested that it was a minor problem.
They noted that only a subsection of 5 percent of Americans were subject to having their insurance policies canceled. But that formulation sounded to some like the president was dismissing several million Americans.
In partial damage control, the president stuck an asterisk next to the four-year-old promise.
“Now if you had one of these substandard plans before the Affordable Care Act became law, and you really liked that plan, you’re able to keep it,” Obama said in Boston on Oct. 30. “That was part of the promise we made. But ever since the law was passed, if insurers decided to downgrade or cancel these plans, what we said under the law is you’ve got to replace them with quality, comprehensive coverage.”
The president was simply trying to get his arms around the problem, and to make sure Americans understood that not everyone was losing their health insurance, before offering a solution, said one White House official.
This week, Obama told politically vulnerable Senate Democrats that he would seek an administrative remedy to soften the blow of the insurance cancellations, and Chief of Staff Denis McDonough carried the same message to House Democrats.
It stands to reason that the White House would make adjustments on the fly as problems with the health care law present themselves, the official said, contending that the president stands with the majority of the public in wanting to watch the law play out and fix things that aren’t working as they crop up.
White House aides declined to say what Obama might be able to do – without Congress — to provide relief for those negatively affected by plan cancellations.
But there are plenty of ideas on Capitol Hill, including a bill written by Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) that would allow people on the individual market to keep their current policies. That’s due up for a vote on Friday, and Democratic and Republican aides expect that it will attract more than the 22 Democrats who voted for a delay in the law’s individual mandate in July.
“Next week, the House will vote on the Keep Your Plan Act … which fulfills the promise that the president repeatedly made and then broke,” said Rory Cooper, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. “Beyond that, the House will continue to review new problems with Obamacare and decide if legislative action is necessary on a case-by-case basis.”