Politics is never having to say you are sorry

On November 14 President Barack Obama spoke about the disastrous rollout of the Affordable Care Act. During that interview with NBC News, he profusely apologized for the website problems and for misleading the American people about their ability to keep their insurance policies. Obama stated that:”Those who got cancellation notices do deserve and have received an apology from me.” He went on to apologize to congressional Democrats for “letting them down.”

The apology only ratcheted up the criticism from conservatives. Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) attacked the president’s statement as a “phony apology” and went on to say “It was like telling someone you’re sorry their dog died, but refusing to acknowledge you ran over the dog.” Similarly Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR) went after President Obama’s honesty by stating: “There’s nothing more damaging than when your word is devalued and people think they were misled.”

President Obama’s apology, while not unique in American political history, was a poor political decision. Former presidents have declared “regret” over policies.

John Kennedy expressed regret over the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. In an April 21 press conference, Kennedy stated: “There’s an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan … Further statements, detailed discussions, are not to conceal responsibility because I’m the responsible officer of the Government …”

Richard Nixon stated on the eve of his resignation that “I regret deeply any injuries that may have been done in the course of the events that led to this decision.” He added: “I would say only that if some of my judgments were wrong, and some were wrong, they were made in what I believed at the time to be the best interest of the nation.”

Ronald Reagan, after being criticized for the failed arms-for-hostages policy in 1987 said:  “A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages,. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.”

After months of denying an illicit relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky and fighting impeachment, Bill Clinton said: “I know that my public comments and my silence about this matter gave a false impression. I misled people, including even my wife. I deeply regret that.”


Most recently George W. Bush, in reflecting on his presidency in 2008, said about the rationale used to begin a military action in Iraq: “The biggest regret of all the presidency has to have been the intelligence failure in Iraq. . . A lot of people put their reputations on the line and said the weapons of mass destruction is a reason to remove Saddam Hussein …. And, you know, that’s not a do-over, but I wish the intelligence had been different, I guess.”

Presidential apologies are funny things. Most presidents would rather use the term “regret,” rather than “apology.” Reagan and Bush offer regrets even while implying that their motives were pure, thus failing to accept full responsibility for their actions. Others such as Kennedy and Clinton use circuitous statements of regrets that could their personal responsibility. 

President Obama is the only president who gave a full-throated apology and he is being excoriated because to if. In today’s political climate, an apology is seen as a sign of weakness, not a normal human response for something that causes pain for others. There should be little surprise when 39 House Democrats voted the next day in favor of a Republican bill giving existing insurance policyholders and those wanting to by what is now referred to as “junk policies” a year’s extension. Those Democrats saw that a president apologizing for the implementation of a policy stands little hope of regaining the political strength necessary to save the Affordable Care Act or offer them any cover in the 2014 midterm elections.

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