By Justin Sink - 11/15/13 06:00 AM EST
President Obama on Thursday looked for someone to blame for the political crisis surrounding ObamaCare and found himself.
At an hour-long press conference, Obama apologized to his party and the country for the fumbled rollout of the law, and acknowledged his administration’s missteps risked Democratic seats in the House and Senate.
“And that’s on me,” Obama said. “I mean, we fumbled the rollout on this health care law.”
Political observers and historians said that the tenor and scope of Obama’s comments — especially considering they were about his signature domestic accomplishment — was unprecedented in recent presidential history.
They also said Obama had no choice but to make them given polls showing him with an approval rating under 40 percent.
Worse for a president who has at least been liked by many Americans during his presidency, a recent poll from NBC and The Wall Street Journal found more people dislike the president than like him.
And a majority polled by Quinnipiac said they don’t trust Obama.
“It’s pretty unusual, but it was probably appropriate for the president to fall on his sword a little bit,” said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst for the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “He was very explicitly taking blame for what had happened.”
Boston University professor Tobe Berkovitz, who has worked on Democratic senatorial campaigns as a media consultant, said that the problems with the rollout were an affront to Obama’s “unlimited” self-confidence.
“His problem is always to not let unlimited confidence move into arrogance, and this is a real taking to the woodshed for him,” Berkovitz said. “Out of all of his legacies, this is the one for him that is certainly most significant, and to watch it come up at least at the start as extremely troubled or a failure is a huge reflection on him as a man, him as a president and him as a leader for what he envisions America to be.”
Princeton University public affairs professor Julian Zelizer said Obama also had to apologize because of the fury of congressional Democrats, who are giving the administration an earful behind closed doors.
“He felt that congressional Democrats were no longer going to stand by him. He doesn’t mind the political attacks, but it’s changed,” Zelizer said.
Obama said during the press conference that after Democrats “stood up and supported this effort through thick and thin,” he felt “deeply responsible for making it harder for them rather than easier for them to continue to promote the core values that I think led them to support this thing in the first place.”
The apology to Democrats was also notable since many Democrats in the House have in the past faulted Obama for not doing more to help them retain or win back their majority.
Many historians grappled to find a modern historical analogue, noting that it was hard to imagine Presidents Clinton or George W. Bush providing the kind of apology Obama offered on the implementation of one of their domestic policy priorities.
The closest parallel might have been the blunt apology President Reagan gave following the Iran-Contra scandal, during which the Republican famously admitted there was “nothing I can say that will make the situation right.”
Obama’s comments at the press conference were also an attempt to contain the crisis threatening his second term. He explicitly acknowledged he would need to “do some work to rebuild confidence around some of our initiatives.”
But Berkovitz said that any benefit the president might have earned though owning up to the problems with the website could be undermined by the political strategy informing the keep-your-plan “fix” announced by Obama on Thursday.
Under the new White House regulation, insurers are allowed — but not compelled — to continue offering substandard insurance plans to existing customers, despite ObamaCare regulations that would have initially prevented those plans being grandfathered in. But it’s likely many insurers won’t bother to take on the administrative headache involved in continuing to offer the plans — allowing Democrats to shift blame to a familiar punching bag.
Berkovitz warned the president’s apology risks seeming insincere if he starts “going back into political mode.”
“You can tell where the pivot point is going to be, which is blaming insurers. … By tomorrow, he and the whole team will be back to attack dog mode, ripping the insurance companies, ripping the Republicans,” he said. “The problem is, you apologize but you don't really seem sorry for all the collateral issues.”