A Sorry Apology

President Obama wants to apologize without taking responsibility. That’s not how apologies work.

Obama / Chuck Todd

President Obama tells Chuck Todd he’s sorry, so sorry.

Screengrab via NBC News

In his interview with NBC News on Thursday, President Obama tried to offer an apology for those who are losing their health care plans because of the Affordable Care Act, as well as do damage control. He failed at both.

“I am sorry that they are finding themselves in this situation based on assurances they got from me,” the president told Chuck Todd about those trying to buy insurance in the individual marketplace. These people—the Associated Press says there are more than 3.5 million of them—are losing their plans, not because of anything the president said, but because of his policies. Many don’t know if they can get a new plan that will be better than their old plan because the system isn’t working yet. While the president offered the right words, they were awfully late, as it has been weeks since people have been getting frightening letters saying their coverage would soon disappear. During that period—the weeks between when the worry began and this apology finally arrived—the president has tried various escape routes to get out of his original promise that if you had a plan you liked, you could keep it. It didn’t work for him. All doors were locked. So, with no more room, and political pressure building, he offered his deepest sympathies. 

Why does the wait matter? Because an apology’s proximity to a harm offers an important indication about a person’s underlying motivations—whether he is feeling guilt, responsibility, and repentance, or whether he’s just doing what custom dictates. When you accidentally brain another customer at the market reaching for a bottle of wine, you rush to say you’re sorry. You spit it out because you are compelled like mad to reverse the damage. If you knock into the person and squash a papaya on his starched shirt, you become a flurry of hands to clean it up and make things better. However, if you cause an accident and wait until you bump into the person two weeks later after ducking behind postal boxes to avoid him, he is right to be suspicious about how sorry you are. 

Presidents don’t offer apologies much. Clinton apologized for failing to prevent a genocide in Rwanda and for his deception about his affair with Monica Lewinsky, but it was all very much after the fact. George Bush apologized quickly for the atrocities at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. But the speed didn’t help much because the problem was of such enormity it was metaphysically the least he could do.

When you apologize late, it makes people think that you don’t really mean it and you’ve been forced into it as a last resort. You know who knows how to do it right? Barack Obama. In 2009, when former Sen. Tom Daschle was up for an administration post and had to withdraw, Obama ate the frog right away. “I think I screwed up,” Obama said. “And I take responsibility for it and we’re going to make sure we fix it so it doesn’t happen again. I campaigned on changing Washington and bottom-up politics,” Obama continued. “And I don’t want to send a message to the American people that there are two sets of standards—one for powerful people and one for ordinary folks who are working every day and paying their taxes.”

Everyone says John F. Kennedy set the standard for accountability by taking the blame for the Bay of Pigs disaster. A lot of this is a myth based on his comment at a press conference, when he said that “victory has 100 fathers and defeat is an orphan. … I’m the responsible officer of the Government.” That’s pretty oblique. Obama’s Daschle apology is actually a great example of the form: explicit, with no mumbling.

Not only did the president not meet the Daschle standard in this case, but he bubble-wrapped it with lots of explanations and rationalizations—his broken promise only affects 5 percent of the population, insurance companies are offering subpar plans, there’s churn in the market, and so on. All of this may be true, but when your apology sputters out at the end of a list of mitigating conditions, it lacks much punch. It seems grudging. So do the people going through this feel better? Probably not. Does it look like the president was trying to make himself look better? Yes, it does.

In fact, the president didn’t want to spend much time on the apology at all. What he really wanted to do was put the underlying problem about the individual market in perspective. His larger task is reminding people of the reasons Obamacare was necessary in the first place. But trying to offer that kind of perspective and context isn’t the stuff of great apologies. Because, when you try to go back to first principles, you can sound professorial, distant, and like you’re trying to shrink from the human cost of the screw-up.

The problem with this approach is that the delay has inadvertently created the kind of worry the president passed the law to diminish. “It’s scary to them,” the president said of those who have lost their plans and are in limbo. This fear is similar to the fear the president described when making his argument for the original legislation in 2009 and 2010. When you have no insurance, it’s frightening. When you worry you’ll be dropped from your insurance, it’s frightening. When you might go bankrupt because the plan you have won’t truly cover your bills when you get sick, that’s frightening. The president launched the Affordable Care Act to attack all of that worry. As the president sees it, despite the worries of today, people are still not as bad-off as they were when they were subject to the full mercy of the previous system. (That’s likely to be true for the majority of those in the individual market.) In that system, there was no relief in sight. Now he can at least offer the hope that, despite the great botch, help is coming—once healthcare.gov lets people sign up.

But that message—today’s temporary fear is better than yesterday’s chronic one—is hardly an easy one to sell. Instead, the president offered explanations for why healthcare.gov wasn’t working. One of the rationalizations was that the debacle was the result of the normal friction that comes from trying to do complicated things in government. “I think, what most people I hope also recognize is that when you try to do something big like make our health care system better that there’re going to be problems along the way, even if ultimately what you’re doing is going to make a whole lot of people better off. And I hope that people will look at the end product.”

Does the president really want to try to smooth over this failure by casting it as the inevitable result of trying to do big things? Sure, that gets him out of his present jam, but it’s a tough legacy to leave for any future president who wants to do ambitious work. If what healthcare.gov is going through now is the garden-variety type of “problem along the way” that comes from activist government, then you’ve just read the Republican Party’s talking points. On the other hand, if the president took real responsibility—as he did over the botched Daschle appointment—and admitted at some level that that there were unique failures in his own administration, it might leave alive the possibility that a big job like this could be carried out by a more competent team. That’s a tough thing to say for someone who is trying to dig himself out and keep his signature program alive, but it’s not possible to be sorry and not be responsible at the same time.