A dishonest presidency

Whitehouse.gov

President Obama addresses the American Medical Association on June 15, 2009.

Article Highlights

  • @marcthiessen It’s not easy to get a lie into a presidential speech

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  • @marcthiessen The president’s defenders are twisting around for ways to explain away his 16 words

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  • Obama’s own advisers told the Journal that they knew those 16 words were untrue, but Obama kept on saying them

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The Wall Street Journal broke the news this weekend that, even as President Obama was telling the American people they could keep their health plans, “some White House policy advisors objected to the breadth of Mr. Obama’s ‘keep your plan’ promise. They were overruled by political aides.”

Overruled by political aides? This is simply damning.

It’s not easy to get a lie into a presidential speech. Every draft address is circulated to the White House senior staff and key Cabinet officials in something called the “staffing process.” Every line is reviewed by dozens of senior officials, who offer comments and factual corrections. During this process, it turns out, some of Obama’s policy advisers objected to the “you can keep your plan” pledge, pointing out that it was untrue. But it stayed in the speech. That does not happen by accident. It requires a willful intent to deceive.

In the Bush White House, we speechwriters would often come up with what we thought were great turns of phrase to help the president explain his policies. But we also had a strict fact-checking process, where every iteration of every proposed presidential utterance was scrubbed to ensure it was both accurate and defensible. If the fact-checkers told us a line was inaccurate, we would either kill it or find another way to make the point accurately. I cannot imagine a scenario in which the fact-checkers or White House policy advisers would tell us that something in a draft speech was factually incorrect and that guidance would be ignored or overruled by the president’s political advisers.

This whole episode is a window into a fundamentally dishonest presidency. And the story gets worse. After Obama began telling Americans they could keep their plans, White House aides discussed using media interviews “to explain the nuances of the succinct line in his stump speeches.” But they decided not to do so, because “officials worried . . . that delving into details such as the small number of people who might lose insurance could be confusing and would clutter the president’s message.”

Yes, no need to “clutter” the president’s message with confusing details — like the fact that millions of Americans being told by the president that they could keep their plans were being knowingly misled.

Obama could easily have come up with another way to make his point accurately. He could have said “most Americans will be able to keep their plans.” Or he could have said, as his communications director Dan Pfeiffer put it on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday, “if you had a plan before the Affordable Care Act passed, [and] it hasn’t been changed or canceled, you can keep it” (which prompted McConnell spokesman Don Stewart to reply, “So . . . you can keep your plan — unless it’s been cancelled. Gee, thanks.”) That would certainly have been less powerful, but at least it would have been accurate.

But Obama didn’t say those things. He said, “If you like your health-care plan, you’ll be able to keep your health-care plan. Period. No one will take it away. No matter what.” That statement was clear, unequivocal and wrong — and Obama and his advisers knew it.

The president’s defenders are twisting around for ways to explain away his 16 words. The New York Times wrote in an editorial Sunday that “Mr. Obama clearly misspoke.” Misspoke? On 24 separate occasions? Sorry, the president didn’t “misspeak.” This was an premeditated deception. This wasn’t something Obama ad-libbed. It was a line in a presidential speech that was carefully reviewed by the entire White House senior staff. Obama’s political advisers were told by his policy aides the statement was inaccurate — but they decided to let Americans believe the falsehood.

Obama’s former chief speechwriter, Jon Favreau, told the Journal that the speechwriters were working to find ways to explain a complex policy and that the goal was “simplification and ease of explanation . . . while still being true.” Except what Obama said wasn’t true.

Every president faces the challenge of explaining complex policies in simple terms. But the quest for simplicity is no excuse for dishonesty.

Obama’s own advisers told the Journal that they knew those 16 words were untrue, but Obama kept on saying them — over and over and over again.

If that’s the case, then Obama didn’t misspeak.

He lied.

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About the Author

 

Marc A.
Thiessen

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