Three recent articles and columns prompted me to write about President Obama’s oft-repeated false promise, “If you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan, period.”
One was my former White House colleague Marc Thiessen’s column, “A Dishonest Presidency.” The second was Ron Fournier’s column: “Lying About Lies: Why Credibility Matters to Obama.” The third was this Wall Street Journal article last Saturday.
In that third article this sentence grabbed my attention:
One former senior administration official said that as the law was being crafted by the White House and lawmakers, some White House policy advisers objected to the breadth of Mr. Obama’s “keep your plan” promise. They were overruled by political aides, the former official said.
Overruled by political aides? On a question of accuracy and honesty?!?
I won’t belabor the substance of the “keep your plan” promise. It is unequivocally and incontrovertibly inaccurate. Glenn Kessler does a good job of walking through it. I instead want to focus on the process point from the WSJ story and compare it to my experience.
In more than six years on the staff of President George W. Bush’s National Economic Council, I had the type of conversation described in the WSJ article hundreds of times. As a policy aide one of my core responsibilities was to make sure the President’s policy was accurately communicated and that we could back up every word in the President’s prepared remarks. This was mission critical for us policy aides–I knew that if President Bush said something incorrect on which I had signed off, I was at serious risk of being fired, even if it was just an honest mistake.
While the most important of these discussions were about upcoming Presidential speeches, I had similar conversations several times each day. A huge part of a White House policy aide’s job is to be the internal “official” explainer of the President’s policy. As a White House policy aide you don’t get to decide the policy, but you are the keeper of the flame once the President has made his decisions. You answer questions like “What is the President’s policy on X,” and “Can I say Y about the President’s policy?” You help the White House press shop, legislative affairs and political staff, Cabinet Secretaries and subcabinet officials, and occasionally outside allies who want to know, with certainty, that they are accurately describing the President’s policy views. You live and breathe this stuff.
As presidential speeches were being drafted White House staff had different roles in the process. The speechwriters had the pen. They emphasized simplicity, persuasiveness, intellectual consistency, tone, and writing in the President’s voice. We policy advisors pushed for clarity, accuracy and strong advocacy of the President’s policies. The legislative affairs shop weighed in to have desired impacts on Congress. The press and communications shops focused on how the press would interpret and react to the President’s words, and the political advisors had similar filters thinking about outside allies and opponents.
The White House policy council staff (National Economic Council, National Security Council, Domestic Policy Council and at the time, the Homeland Security Council) had reinforcements as well. Fact checkers working for the speechwriters footnoted every speech. There were other policy shops in the Executive Office of the President, including economists at the Council of Economic Advisers, budget experts at the Office of Management and Budget, and the Vice President’s policy staff, who were similarly focused on making sure we didn’t let the President say something inaccurate or overstate anything.
When things worked well, as they usually did, the speechwriters and policy advisors found language that was accurate, defensible, simple, and persuasive. This often involved many iterations, usually in a debate about accuracy vs. simplicity, as the WSJ reports was the case with President Obama’s “you can keep your health care plan, period” promise. I remember spending close to an hour once trying different iterations to ensure the accuracy of a single sentence for the President.
Sometimes White House staff would disagree on what the President should say. When we couldn’t work out mutually acceptable language, we’d elevate the disagreement.
Ninety-nine times out of 100 this would be elevated to the White House Staff Secretary and/or the White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy. We’d have a discussion involving three to five people: the speechwriter, policy expert, someone from leg affairs or press/comms as needed, and the Staff Sec or DCOS as the arbitrator. Maybe one time in 100 we’d elevate it further to the White House Chief of Staff.
On significant disagreements of framing, prioritization, emphasis, and rhetoric, I struggled to maintain a .500 batting average. I often deferred to the speechwriters or other Presidential advisors rather than elevate such a dispute. I knew I’d probably lose.
But in more than six years of working in the Bush White House as a policy advisor, I was never overruled when I argued that a particular statement, uttered by the President, would be inaccurate. As far as I know, my three bosses at the NEC and every economic policy advisor working for us, over the course of six years, had a similarly perfect record. We never knowingly allowed an inaccurate or indefensible statement into the President’s remarks.
Frankly, we didn’t have to fight that hard because the culture of the Bush White House leaned heavily against testing these limits. All my team or I had to say was, “We can’t say that, it’s not accurate,” and the other member of the White House staff would yield. They would press us (sometimes quite hard) to explain and defend why the language was inaccurate, but as soon as it was obvious we weren’t overplaying our “honesty card” to achieve some other goal, the other party would back off and try to find different language on which we’d sign off. In effect, the Bush White House policy staff had a veto over any proposed presidential language that we deemed to be inaccurate or an overstatement, no matter how vigorous the advocacy from the political staff.
This culture existed principally because of a White House norm set by President Bush and reinforced by his Chiefs of Staff Andy Card and Josh Bolten. It didn’t appear to require a lot of effort on their part, because no one challenged the presumption–of course we’d never risk letting the President say something we knew to be wrong. To suggest otherwise was heretical. We’d be criticized and sometimes attacked for the President’s views and policies, but everyone insisted that we’d never knowingly allow ourselves to be attacked for intentional misrepresentations.
As a practical matter we also knew that any overstatement would do far more damage to the President than any temporary rhetorical advantage it might offer. We knew, with certainty, that even the slightest inaccuracy would immediately generate aggressive questions from a press corps that mostly leaned against us. The New York Times would go after us at the first opportunity unless others beat them to the punch. We knew we’d then have to help the Press Secretary defend the President’s statement under repeated and ruthless attacks from a press corps that was constantly probing for such weaknesses. If this sounds a tad paranoid, remember the old saying: Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. Our relationship with the White House press corps was quite different than that facing Team Obama.
The internal honesty and accuracy norm, supplemented by a healthy fear of an unfriendly press corps, was reinforced by the pain we felt when we made occasional mistakes. The most visible of these were the “16 words” about uranium in the President’s 2003 State of the Union address. That statement was technically true but based on flawed intelligence. Because it was so important to subsequent policy, this error later subjected President Bush to fierce criticism. Neither I nor anyone on our policy team wanted to take any risk of a similar event in the economic lane, so we fought as hard as necessary to eliminate such risk.
Like many others, I’ve been extremely hesitant to use the word lie to describe President Obama’s oft-repeated statements that “If you like your health plan, you can keep it, period.” A lie incorporates both inaccuracy and intention. While I am and have been a fierce critic of the Affordable Care Act, I have been extremely hesitant to write that President Obama lied. But based on all the available evidence I can’t reach any other conclusion, and the importance and impact of this lie justify the accusation.
Senior White House staff debated whether the President should say this, knowing it was inaccurate. This isn’t a point one could have missed–a principal goal of the ACA was to change (they argue “strengthen,” I disagree) the individual insurance market, to replace old plans with new ones. The statement is patently false and its legislative and substantive impact were crucial. Policy staff were overruled by “political aides.” The President and his advisors knew both that this promise was essential to rounding up the votes in 2010, and that it would not be true for something like 10 million people. For me the kicker is that President Obama said it more than two dozen times, including as recently as six weeks ago. The President knew it was false and he knew it was important, and still he said it over and over again.
President Obama lied to the American public and to Congress when he was trying to enact the Affordable Care Act. He lied after the ACA became law. He repeated this lie more than two dozen times, including as recently as six weeks ago. And then two days ago he offered a new lie about what he had previously said. I can reach no other conclusion.
As someone who spent countless hours ensuring Presidential policy accuracy, the idea that an Obama White House staffer would lose such an internal battle, that they would give President Obama a speech staff knew was wrong, is beyond my experience. A White House Chief of Staff who permits President Obama to say something he knows is false violates everything I learned about serving a President. A President must not lie to the American people and Congress about a core element of his signature domestic policy initiative, even if doing so is necessary for that initiative to become law. When he did this, President Obama breached the trust America needs to have in her President.