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The president's political apology

President Obama's sort-of apology for saying, "If you like your heath care plan, you can keep it," is in keeping with the tradition of Oval Office occupants trying to cover their posteriors when they are suddenly exposed.

It brings to mind the Seinfeld episode in which Jerry takes an obviously shrunken shirt back to the cleaners. The defensive clerk first asks for a receipt to prove the shirt had actually been laundered there. Finally, with a sheepish look of resignation, he blurts out: "We shrunk it!"

Ah, if only life mirrored television humor. Instead, President Obama settled in an NBC interview by saying "I am sorry" that millions receiving cancellations of their old policies and promising to do everything he could to help those "who find themselves in a tough position as a consequence of this."

The president's carefully crafted mea culpa repeated his alibi that those who held cheap policies lacking the better provisions of his Affordable Care Act were intended to be "grandfathered in." That is, they would be able to keep their old plans if bought prior to enactment of Obamacare. Like the small print in insurance policies, the caveat went largely unnoticed and was incomprehensible.

President Obama deftly segued into his sales pitch, saying "the majority of folks ... who got these cancellation letters (will) be able to get better care at the same cost or cheaper in these new marketplaces." They just haven't been able to realize it yet, he said, because of the malfunctioning of the government's sign-up website.

Hence his frantic effort to get the site up and running efficiently, before his commendable dream of near-universal health care goes up in smoke. So far, it's a repair job on a program that, incidentally, was built by private-sector contractors, not some new bureaucracy like Social Security, as its foes often imply.

Because presidents are politicians who depend on public support for ultimate success, they're obliged to maintain voter confidence or they will see their power wane. So when a misstep occurs, they are most often unable, or at least unwilling, to offer apology with the bark off. One need only remember Bill Clinton's mind-numbing evasion that "it depends on what the meaning of is, is" in the word games he played over the Monica Lewinsky fiasco.

In the earlier Watergate crimes that caused the first presidential resignation in disgrace, Richard Nixon started out by telling a Disney World audience (!), "I'm not a crook." He gradually went downhill from there, orchestrating release of carefully edited transcriptions of the damning White House tapes that eventually did him in.

Years later, George W. Bush launched his war of choice in Iraq on grounds that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction poised to attack the West, and was proved to be wrong. But he never bothered to apologize. When confronted with this fact afterward by Diane Sawyer on ABC News, his response was: "So what's the difference? ... Saddam Hussein was a threat, and the fact he is gone means America is a safer country."

As presidential apologies go, President Obama's mild expression of regret was about par for the course. Being president apparently means, as an old mushy romance novel said of love, never having to say you're sorry, at least not explicitly. It's true that President Obama doesn't have to worry about re-election, but he does want to preserve his credibility to achieve desired political goals in his remaining three White House years.

He might have been better served at this juncture to flat-out admit that his assurances over Obamacare and its bungled rollout were his own fault, by carelessness rather than intent, beyond acknowledging that, in Harry Truman's words, "The buck stops here."

John Kennedy put it another way in his own categorical observation after his failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, that "victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan." Kennedy's candor cleared the air, maintaining his high popularity thereafter. But with Obama's ardent foes snapping at his heels, it's probably unrealistic for him to do other than offer voters a more coherent justification for buying into the current health-care dilemma that bears his name.

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.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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