By Cathleen Decker
5:40 PM EST, November 14, 2013
Whether President Obama’s latest apology for the crash-and-burn rollout of his signature healthcare plan helps his case will only be known over time. What was undeniable Thursday was that the gravity of the issue finally has hit home in the White House.
Gone were the weird and sometimes passive constructions, as in his interview with NBC News last week when he said, regarding people who had gotten cancellation notices: “I am sorry that they, you know, are finding themselves in this situation, based on assurances they got from me.”
Gone, too, was any effort to imply that America had just failed to read the fine print in his repeated assertion that people who were happy with their health insurance would be able to keep it — or his later attempts to alter that flat assertion by defining which insurance he had meant to be protected.
Thursday’s appearance looked like that of someone who had messed up and finally realized there was only one simple message that might work to salvage things: My fault. Blame me.
At least seven times the president said the failures of the healthcare rollout were “on us” or “on me.” That argument had two goals. First was to show the American people -- who polls show increasingly believe they cannot trust Obama’s word -- that he understood the buck stopped at his desk.
“I completely get how upsetting this can be for a lot of Americans, particularly after assurances they heard from me that if they had a plan that they liked they could keep it,” he said. “And to those Americans, I hear you loud and clear. I said that I would do everything we can to fix this problem. And today I'm offering an idea that will help do it.”
The other goal was to get members of Congress off the hook when it came to blame. That was meant to calm Capitol Hill’s restive Democrats, who were signaling clearly that they were going to distance themselves from his plan if he didn’t do it himself, so worried were they that they’d take the fall in next year’s elections.
“I think it's very important for me to note that, you know, there are a whole bunch of folks up in Congress and others who made this statement,” he said of the assertion that Americans could keep their insurance if they desired. “I want them to know that, you know, their senator or congressman, they were making representations based on what I told them and what this White House and our administrative staff told them, and so it's not on them, it's on us. But it is something that we intend to fix.”
The two goals get to the dual demands of leadership in this partisan era: You’d better have the people you want to lead behind you, and you’d better make sure that your half of the split Congress is firmly in your corner.
Obama’s apology was replete with football analogies that served to underscore another political reality: There are few dramatic long bombs into the end zone these days; much more of the time, success rests on a grinding game of dusty inches.
“I am very frustrated, but I'm also somebody who, if I fumble the ball, you know, I'm going to wait until I get the next play, and then I'm going to try to run as hard as I can and do right by the team,” he said of the healthcare plan. “So, you know, ultimately I'm the head of this team. We did fumble the ball on it. And what I'm going to do is make sure that we get it fixed.”
The central imbalance at the heart of the healthcare policy remains, however. A small but vocal percentage of the country was jettisoned from their policies by Obamacare, despite promises to the contrary, a circumstance that Obama sought to allay by allowing insurance companies to delay for a year the cancellation of individual policies that don’t meet the new law’s standards.
Some of those people, at least, would have been able to get policies under the new insurance marketplaces set up under Obamacare, except that the website that is the main portal to do so has been broken. “Two fumbles”, as he put it, and two big ones.
Obama does not often exude humility — like all presidents, he is a supremely confident man. But there appeared to be an awareness Thursday that something approaching humility was the only path out. He defended jumping into the healthcare morass in the first place, noting, “I'm not going to walk away from 40 million people who have the chance to get health insurance for the first time.”
But the toll of the rocky rollout was evident. A Quinnipiac poll released Tuesday showed that for the first time a majority of Americans believe Obama is not honest and trustworthy, a finding that threatens everything else that he might want to propose in his last three years and, more broadly, his presidential legacy. Without fixing healthcare, he can’t fix that.
“So in terms of how I intend to approach it, I'm just going to keep on working as hard as I can around the priorities that the American people care about,” Obama said. “And I think it's legitimate for them to expect me to have to win back some credibility on this health care law in particular and on a whole range of these issues in general.”
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