Obama’s Credibility Gap

Once a president loses his cred, it’s hard to get it back.

President Barack Obama speaks in the Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House on Nov. 14, 2013, in Washington.

Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

In his press conference Thursday, the president outlined his challenge for the remainder of his term. “I’m just going to keep on working as hard as I can around the priorities that I think the American people care about. 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.”

Winning back credibility is hard for presidents. It requires either an emergency or the kind of candor presidents don’t usually feel free to express. Anything short of that isn’t likely to dispel the impressions people have formed as a result of the big event that caused them to lose their trust in a president in the first place. Given the difficult road the president’s health care plan has traveled, it seems like he is going to have an especially hard time winning back that trust. 

What makes it so hard is that as a basic proposition, administrations are not really in the credibility business. When a president or his spokesman steps up to the lectern, no one girds himself for a bracing moment of honesty. Spinning the messy nature of life is central to a president’s purpose. A large part of the audience—a skeptical press corps and political foes—assumes a certain amount of dissembling.

That’s the natural state of things. President Obama has a particular challenge. He is in a hunkered marathon of damage control. His signature achievement as president is in trouble, polls show Americans trust him less than they ever did, and he’s at that stage in his presidency where his legacy is beginning to be defined. Even the most pure-hearted pilgrim would have to lash himself to the mast to keep from engaging in spin to manage these problems. But when you spin in the middle of a credibility crisis, the garden-variety shadings required by the office can make your problem worse. That’s bad for the president’s standing and for his party, but it’s also bad because it means everything the president says gets a downgrade. If no one listens or believes you, it’s hard to make the case for any good news.

This brings us to the deadline for the successful operation of healthcare.gov. It is supposed to be up and humming on Nov. 30. As a policy matter, if the president’s experiment is going to work, he needs the website to function so that healthy people—particularly young healthy people—can sign up and keep premiums from skyrocketing. As a public relations matter, he needs this so that the system can start minting enough positive anecdotes of people successfully signing up to beat back all the negative press.

As a credibility matter, the president and his team need the website to work by this date because they have said it would. The pressure to spin is going to be enormous. When you’re in a crouch, you worry your candor is only going to give ammunition to your detractors. There was a whiff of this instinct in the management of the rollout numbers this week. Spin too much and the administration will remind everyone of what caused the calamity in the first place: No one wanted to tell the truth that the website wasn’t ready more than a month ago.

The Obama team already faces a steep hill here. The complexity of the repair job and the history of broken promises means they probably shouldn’t even be guaranteeing the site will be working by a hard date. In a battle for credibility, these claims don’t send calm—they send a warning that another disappointment is coming. Baby please take me back, this time I promise. 

Credibility is not just about honesty. It’s about authority. Does the president really have command over the things he’s talking about? The president admitted that he was not in the loop about the colossal problems with his health care rollout. “I was not informed directly that the website would not be working the way it was supposed to,” the president said on Thursday. “Had I been informed, I wouldn’t be going out saying, ‘Boy, this is going to be great.’ You know, I’m accused of a lot of things, but I don’t think I’m stupid enough to go around saying, ‘This is going to be like shopping on Amazon or Travelocity,’ a week before the website opens, if I thought that it wasn’t going to work.”

The president is no doubt receiving lots of regular updates now, but as the public evaluates his ability to speak accurately about the issues of the day, has he lost something by not appearing to be at the center of his own administration? In his new book about John Kennedy, Camelot’s Court, Robert Dallek describes how important retaining that image was to JFK’s conception of the presidency: “When Kennedy took responsibility for the Bay of Pigs, it was not simply a courageous move to protect subordinates, but also a statement of his conviction that if he were to establish himself as a historical figure, he needed to be seen as at the center of all his administration did— the achievements and the failures.”

Obama’s credibility challenges won’t stop when his incompetently managed health care website is finally repaired. Once that gets fixed, the president will ride another credibility roller coaster: truthfully describing whether the Affordable Care Act is working as designed. All the attention on his law’s launch-pad disaster may have distracted people from the fact that the underlying pursuit is a very tough one. If healthcare.gov had launched perfectly, there still would have been a huge debate over whether Obamacare was working as promised. Were younger people signing up? Were the risk pools in various regions of the country filled with the right kinds of policyholders necessary to keep premiums in check? This was the original brain surgery the president was undertaking before the earthquake. Once the patient is lifted back off the floor and the generator is patched up, you still have to do brain surgery. 

President George W. Bush, whose low approval ratings Obama is approaching, used to say that the real evaluation of his presidency wouldn’t happen until he was dead. That’s probably true of all presidents, but President Obama may have a short cut to a preliminary verdict. In a year, we’ll know whether the Affordable Care Act was a success or failure. It’s the most predictable factor that could improve or eviscerate the president’s credibility. All he has to do now is perform brain surgery. 

Update, Nov. 18, 2013: This post has been updated to reflect changes made in an updated transcript of the president’s remarks.