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Witcover: of presidential gaffes and calamities

Every American president has to weather occasional political gaffes. Whether their own or those committed by associates, they cause temporary embarrassment or pain but are ultimately survivable. Loose lips may sink ships, as was often said in warning during World War II, but they're seldom fatal in the normal course of governing.

Major mistakes, however, if they linger or are repeated, can be the undoing of a presidency. The excesses of the Vietnam War that drove Lyndon Johnson to the sidelines in 1968, and Watergate, which led to Richard Nixon's resignation in 1974, have had lasting political consequences.

In 1978, Jimmy Carter's extensive and too-visible procrastination over what to do about the nation's energy crisis led to a circus-like caravan of the nation's wise men to seemingly endless brain-picking at Camp David. The fiasco conveyed a message of presidential indecision and befuddlement that contributed to his defeat for re-election in 1980.

In 1998, the senior George Bush's Republican National Convention promise to voters, "Read my lips: no new taxes," boomeranged on him later when, under pressures from economic policy advisers, he went ahead and imposed them. Chagrined GOP conservatives, always suspecting Bush of being a closet moderate, deserted him in droves, and their outrage led to his defeat for re-election in 1992.

Unhappily for Barack Obama, a similar political peril now faces him in the confused rollout of his hard-won health-care insurance law. The problems have conveyed a sense of managerial incompetence by this president who came to office with no experience in running a bureaucracy.

As with Mr. Bush and "Read my lips," a mere verbal gaffe threatens to mushroom into a major illustration of managerial neglect if not outright deception. Obama's now-infamous promise to voters about insurance -- "If you like the plan you have, you can keep it" and "no one will take it away" -- has been rendered "inoperative," in Watergate era jargon, by insurance industry reality and the new health-care law itself.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, now reduced with considerable malice to the label of "Obamacare," provides that existing plans must include certain new protections, including coverage for pre-existing medical conditions, coverage for dependents under age 26 and other desirable provisions. Insurance companies offering plans lacking such coverage have notified clients that their plans are being cancelled. Hence the public uproar.

President Obama's failure to foresee this complication or failure to spell it out has forced him to backtrack on his earlier categorical assurances, adding fuel to any already combustible failure in the rollout of the whole program. Much depends now on whether and how quickly the technological enrollment snarl can be untangled, allowing the many millions of uninsured Americans to buy into the embattled plan.

What may have been dismissed initially as a mere bureaucratic gaffe or a presidential slip of the tongue now risks developing into a major invitation to re-evaluate the public judgment of the man elected to the Oval Office in 2008 and re-elected in 2012 as a competent steward of the nation's business.

The kink in the Affordable Care Act may yet be ironed out, and the law may yet take its place among the other great social welfare programs. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid also experienced early growing pains before blossoming into widely cherished components in the America social safety net. But the jury distinctly is still out on Mr. Obama's health care law, and the fate of his entire presidency may hang in the balance.

Not every heavy cloud over an occupant of the White House has proved to be politically fatal. Bill Clinton, impeached for lying to a grand jury in the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal of the 1990s, was acquitted by the Senate in a partisan vote and finished his second term with high marks for his governance, if not for his personal behavior.

Barack Obama bears no similar personal scar, although his popularity has already taken a considerable hit in the polls. But if the trials of Obamacare continue to throw the rest of his agenda off track in his three remaining presidential years, he will have paid a high price for its bureaucratic difficulties and vulnerabilities.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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