Those of you who have emailed concern that my field, this blog and the task of exploring the depths of dishonesty in our national politics will make me cynical, I can officially assure you that so far, I am unsullied. Here’s the proof: I am actually surprised that the national news media so eagerly accepted whatever it was the President said in mitigation of his 3.5 year long Affordable Care Act lie as an “apology.”
It was clearly not an apology. Yet in a rare show of solidarity, reporters right and left rushed to their respective keyboards to dash out “President apologizes!” The solidarity was illusory, of course: while the Right wanted to say the President apologized as proof that all the rationalizations, excuses and tortured explanations from Obama’s allies and enabler were as phony as his assurances, and now, by apologizing, the President had admitted it, the Left’s motive was to pronounce the scandal over so the President could “move on.” Okay, he’s apologized; what more do you want? This is confirmation bias, leading to different mistaken conclusions: both conservatives and liberals heard what they wanted to hear. What they should have heard was an incoherent expression of regret without accountability, retraction, admission, or contrition…in short, not an apology at all.
On the Ethics Alarms Apology Scale, I see no way to rank what the President actually said to NBC’s Chuck Todd as anything better than a 9 or 10 (I’d call it an ugly hybrid of the two), on the scale, the Stygian realm where dishonest, manipulative, non-apology apologies dwell:
#9. Deceitful apologies, in which the wording of the apology is crafted to appear apologetic when it is not (“if my words offended, I am sorry”). Another variation: apologizing for a tangential matter other than the act or words that warranted an apology.
#10. An insincere and dishonest apology designed to allow the wrongdoer to escape accountability cheaply, and to deceive his or her victims into forgiveness and trust, so they are vulnerable to future wrongdoing.
CHUCK TODD: Do you feel like you owe these folks an apology for misleading them?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: You know–
TODD: Even if you didn’t intentionally do it, but at this point, they feel misled. And you’ve seen the anger that’s out there.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: You know– I regret very much that– what we intended to do, which is to make sure that everybody is moving into better plans because they want ’em, as opposed to because they’re forced into it.That, you know, we weren’t as clear as we needed to be– in terms of the changes that were taking place.And I want to do everything we can to make sure that people are finding themselves in a good position– a better position than they were before this law happened. Keep in mind that most of the folks who are going to– who got these — cancellation letters, they’ll be able to get better care at the same cost or cheaper in these new marketplaces. Because they’ll have more choice. They’ll have more competition. They’re part of a bigger pool. Insurance companies are going to be hungry for their business. So– the majority of folks will end up being better off, of course, because the website’s not working right. They don’t necessarily know it right. But it– even though it’s a small percentage of folks who may be disadvantaged, you know, it means a lot to them. And it’s scary to them. And I am sorry that they– you know, are finding themselves in this situation, based on assurances they got from me. We’ve got to work hard to make sure that– they know– we hear ’em and that we’re going to do everything we can– to deal with folks who find themselves– in a tough position as a consequence of this.
Let’s examine whether this can fairly be called a true apology.
1. Does the President ever concede that he misled the public?
No. Even though Todd gives him an out (“Even if you didn’t intentionally do it…”) , which, as a supposedly objective interviewer, he should not have done, Obama pointedly refuses to admit that his statement was false. He says “we”—not he—were not “clear”—which implies that it was his audience that misunderstood what he intended to convey. His audience, to the contrary, understood the words they heard and read the only way they could be understood. The problem wasn’t that a true statement wasn’t clear; the problem was that a clear statement wasn’t true. For there is no doubt now that the President knew it was untrue every time he uttered it. A 2010 video shows him telling Republican House members,
“The 8 to 9 million people you refer to that might have to change their coverage — keep in mind out of the 300 million Americans that we are talking about — would be folks who the CBO, the Congressional Budget Office, estimates would find the deal in the exchange better. Would be a better deal. So, yes, they would change coverage because they got more choice and competition.”
“The key phrase is Obama admitting that those 8 or 9 million “might have to change their coverage.” And that video is the smoking gun equivalent of finding video of President George W. Bush admitting he knew all along that Iraq had no WMD.”
2. Does the President ever say that he is sorry he said what he said, over and over again?
No! He says he’s sorry about the current consequences to some people of what he said , those who “are finding themselves in this situation.” This puts it squarely in the category of a non-apology apology, when the offender says, “I’m sorry if my words offended you.” Obama’s sorry if his words caused people to find themselves in “this situation,” this situation presumably meaning “surprised.” This is the Class #9 apology’s trick of apologizing for something other than the real offense, which in Obama’s case was tricking the public into supporting legislation based on his assurances that something wouldn’t happen when he knew all the time that it would.
3. Does the President ever say he is sorry for the real consequences of his lie, that it persuaded citizens to support the Affordable Care Act, sight unseen, words unread, because of his intentionally false assurances?
No….because he isn’t sorry. It worked. He’s sorry that he is getting criticized for his tactics, however.
4. Is the President saying any of this because he is genuinely sorry, or because it is politically expedient?
The latter, obviously. As Slate’s John Dickerson argues, incorrectly granting this double-talk status as an apology but at least designating it as a lousy one, the tip-off is the timing, as well as all the excuses:
“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….Not only did the president not meet [the timeliness] 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.”
5. Is the statement sincere?
How can it be sincere?
A. Obama talks as if it wasn’t completely within his power to make certain that his words were accurate, either by speaking the truth, or by making sure that his legislation wouldn’t force anyone out of their plans. It was, and he knows it was.
B. He pretends that this all a big surprise to him too, when we know he was aware all along.
C, D, and E. The Obamacare website is still, as of this minute, making the identical claim he is saying was a problem:
I don’t care how loused up the site is; wording can be taken down and altered in minutes. [There—I just fixed another typo. It took six seconds.] If the President really cared about how “clear” his words were and regretted they were causing some of the public to be “in this situation,” wouldn’t the first thing on his agenda be to call in his minions and say, “That website is making a liar out of me: change it now!”?
Frankly, I find this incredible, and, like so much the President is responsible for, evocative of the no-win mystery, “Is the man jaw-droppingly dumb or does is he convinced that a critical mass of the public and media are too stupid to function?” I think the correct choice of answer is mandatory and unavoidable. Obama doesn’t get the benefit of Hanlon’s Razor after five years of relentless puffery about his brilliance.
6. Does the President ever acknowledge to Todd that besides not being “as clear as we needed to be,” either he or his Administration did anything wrong–as in deceptive, manipulative and unethical?
No. He lists all of the reasons imaginable why people are scared and frustrated, with the primary message that everyone needs to be patient and understanding. What the media is calling the President’s apology came in the middle of a laundry list of the impediments and problems that Obama identified as impeding the desired operation of his signature health insurance legislation. His primary rationalization: doing big things is hard:
“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.”
Translation: “Don’t blame me for not succeeding in my challenging and courageous goals right away.”
Since all of these problems are, says Obama, inevitable, and because they are all the result of attempting something so undeniably worthwhile, the President is not accepting blame for anything, admitting that there was wrongdoing, or accepting responsibility. If these problems—this is back to the “bumps in the road” line of excuses that immediately followed the website crash—are inevitable, then the statement can’t be an apology, which must include the basic acceptance of fault. As the Slate piece concludes, “it’s not possible to be sorry and not be responsible at the same time.”
…which raises the question of why, if the author understands that, the article identifies Obama’s statements as an apology at all.
7. If it’s not an apology, what is it?
Is “I’m sorry for your loss” an apology? Is “I’m sorry it had to end this way”? “I’m sorry you’re having to go through all this”? “I’m sorry you’re mad at me”? “I’m sorry you feel that way”?
“I’m sorry Barack Obama can’t be trusted”?
Of course not. None of these are apologies, and neither is “And I am sorry that they…are finding themselves in this situation, based on assurances they got from me.” The President’s statement is an expression of regret, not for his actions but for what others are suffering. It is an expression of sympathy, following a direct request for an apology. He uses the word “sorry,” a word which is identified with apologies (as well as sympathy), in a context that would lead a careless listener or reader (or confirmation bias-driven commentators) to perceive an apology where none is intended or exist. That makes his statement deceitful-–just another lie, a statement intended to make others think he is apologizing when he is not.
And he does owe the public an apology, and that’s just the beginning. Writing in the National Review, Andrew McCarthy makes the powerful point that Obama’s intentional misrepresentation would get him indicted for fraud under his own Justice Department’s policies:
“…[L]et’s say our schemer is the president of a health-insurance company, and that it was clearly foreseeable to him that his company’s clients would lose their current insurance plans if the company adopted his proposal of a complex new health-insurance framework. In fact, let’s assume that the schemer not only had analyses showing that clients would lose their plans but that he also had a history of openly favoring a “single-payer” insurance system — i.e., an unconcealed desire to move everyone from private to government-managed insurance arrangements.
Suppose the schemer nevertheless vowed to the company’s clients, to whom he bore fiduciary obligations, that they needn’t fear his proposed new insurance framework; under it, he promised time after time after time, if they liked their current plans, they would be able to keep those plans. And let’s say that, on the basis of that repeated vow, the clients supported the schemer’s reappointment as president and his proposed new framework. On these facts, the clients’ subsequent loss of their current insurance plans helps prove the schemer’s fraudulent intent. The schemer has committed not just a fraud but a carefully thought-out, fully successful fraud, replete with suffering victims.
The concept of fraudulent deception, like the concept of perjury and other forms of actionable false statement, often entails not only affirmative lies — e.g., the general manager who tells a baseball player, “I will not trade you if you sign the contract,” and then proceeds to trade the player after he signs; the concept also commonly involves the omission of material facts (what’s called “material omission”) — e.g., the general manager who tells the player, “I will not trade you if you sign the contract,” under circumstances where, unbeknownst to the player, the general manager has already made arrangements to trade him.
A material omission is the intentional failure to state any fact the communication of which would be necessary to ensure that statements already made are not misleading. The concept of material omission is a staple of fraud prosecutions. A good example is the Obama Justice Department’s ongoing and transparently political effort to portray financial institutions — as opposed to government policies — as the proximate cause of the mortgage-industry collapse that resulted in our national economic meltdown.
Attorney General Eric Holder’s minions have recently sued Bank of America and UBS. The complaints filed in court by prosecutors allege that these financial institutions defrauded investors in the sale of mortgage-backed securities by failing to disclose important facts about the underlying mortgages. Indeed, prosecutors asserted that financial institutions’ statements about these securities were both lies and, even where arguably true, material omissions. That’s because the statements withheld from investors the fact that the institutions well knew, based on internal analyses, that many of the mortgages backing the securities would go into default.
Recall that President Obama knew three years ago, based on internal analyses, that because of his administration’s own regulation-writing, millions of Americans would lose the health plans he nonetheless continued to promise they could keep. The president hid the data . . . just as did those financial institutions that his trusty attorney general has sued. Comparatively speaking, though, the financial institutions defrauded significantly fewer victims. Thus it is noteworthy that Holder is now demanding that the institutions pay hundreds of millions of dollars for their fraudulent misrepresentations.
Even that is not good enough for some prominent Democrats. Senator Carl Levin, for example, blasted the Justice Department for not pursuing a criminal fraud case against Goldman Sachs. Goldman had not made false statements in marketing the securities in dispute; but it did fail to disclose that it had shorted the same securities — i.e., it was quietly betting against the same securities it was selling. (I wrote sympathetically toward Goldman here, and Nicole Gelinas posted a characteristically smart rebuttal here.) Senator Levin railed at Holder’s decision not to file criminal charges, portraying it as an abdication in the face of behavior that was “deceptive and immoral.” Of course, if you want to talk about “deceptive and immoral,” Obama was snowing ordinary Americans, not savvy investors; and he was not just betting against the insurance plans he was promising to preserve; he was personally working to wipe them out.
McCarthy concludes that “Barack Obama is guilty of fraud — serial fraud — that is orders of magnitude more serious than frauds the Justice Department routinely prosecutes, and that courts punish harshly. The victims will be out billions of dollars, quite apart from other anxiety and disruption that will befall them.” With that in mind, the news media and the public would be letting the President off absurdly easy if he gave a genuine apology, a #1…
…An apology motivated by the realization that one’s past conduct was unjust, unfair, and wrong, constituting an unequivocal admission of wrongdoing as well as regret, remorse and contrition, as part of a sincere effort to make amends and seek forgiveness.
To allow him to avoid responsibility with a non-apology apology like he gave to Todd is ridiculous.