Ensuring presidential accuracy & honesty

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 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.

I escaped Washington, DC and now teach at Stanford's Graduate School of Business.

Posted in economy, health, west wing
13 comments on “Ensuring presidential accuracy & honesty
  1. temblor4 says:

    But, Keith, isn’t the truth of the matter that in every single case where responsible reporters have examined the extant plans and compared them to what Obamacare offers, in NO instance whatsoever is it advantageous to keep the extant plan?

    The tea partiers simply keep lying about the comparison of the two plans, knowing that their base will never bother to look farther?

    Hell, Rachel Maddow found one woman who had no coverage because, no matter how bad, she couldn’t afford it, but Obamacare offers her a plan with real insurance for a price after subsidies of $1.40/month.

    The tea party has yet to find one human being who is worse off with Obamacare, after the facts are checked, but keep braying and spraying as if they have.

    Bill Lockhart

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    • Allen says:


      No one is arguing that giving people subsidies will probably make insurance less expensive for them. People will vote for free or subsidies healthcare, and Obama’s election proves it. The issue is whether those who want to continue their healthcare plans at roughly their current cost (with modest cost-of-living increases) can do so, and the answer is no. So that means that our President misled people during the last election.

      He also said that costs would go down by $2,500 per family. But his implication is that these costs would decrease because overall costs are being contained. That is another fib. If your family’s cost goes down because of the government subsidy, that is again misleading.

      I can give you millions of examples of “people who are worse off under Obamacare” and that is all taxpayers who aren’t getting subsidies!

      And that doesn’t even begin to estimate the loss of medical expertise which we have yet to experience when this fully kicks in.

    • Julian Sardor says:

      “Braying and spraying”? Are you writing to the prog choir? Do you think this characterization persuades anybody that you are correct? Or is merely intended to mask the problems inherent in your own words your?

      For example: “NO instance whatsoever” (your emphasis)? That’s an impossibly broad statement, and it boils down to a personal opinion – masquerading as fact and likely false. Just like President Obama’s numerous broad statements were (to be irresponsibly charitable) “false”.

      Does NPR rely on irresponsible reporters? I ask this because NPR reported: “Lisa Dieckman, a retired psychologist in Los Angeles, likes the Affordable Care Act’s promise that everybody can get health insurance. But she’s not happy about being told she can’t keep her own coverage and will have to pay considerably more for a policy she doesn’t consider any better.”

      This sure sounds like she thinks she’s in a “disadvantageous” position, and it sound to me like she would have a valid reason for feeling that way.

      Going beyond analyses that seem to rest on anecdote, NPR reports that “millions” may have healthcare coverage cancelled. Given the complexity of healthcare arrangements, who are the responsible reporters who combed all the details cancelled plans, the insureds’ needs and desires, and the various plans that will (eventually) be on market for replacement coverage? What methodology did they use to determine that some replacement plan always will be “advantageous” for the individual’s personal situation?

      So far the focus has been on your narrow argument regarding cancelled plans. However, there are several additional aspects of the ACA that are affecting healthcare arrangements. For example, the law’s mandates and financial implications have resulted in several large insurers dramatically culling physicians from their “approved” list. In addition, many doctors have opted out of participating in the exchanges. How is this situation NOT disadvantageous if I have to go find a new doctor? And how is it NOT disadvantageous if I cannot have the deductible arrangements I want, or the flexible spending account I want, or have to buy coverage I don’t need? How is it NOT disadvantageous when I no longer can mix-and-match healthcare insurance provisions from my and my spouse’s employer plans?

      In short, I don’t see much difference between the arguments you make and your characterization of what the Tea Party is doing.

      • rdw382 says:

        Probably the best way I’ve heard this explained. Democrats think all of the complaining is 100% politically motivated. No, the actual statute, which I’ve read a lot of in the past week stinks to high heavens… And it was all predicted by anyone that cared to look at it outside of the White House because the problems were readily apparent from the plain language of the statute.

        But the dems characterization that its just an effort to undermine Obama makes sense given this article and how it came about on the front end.

    • Rick Caird says:

      Certainly, there have been lots of cases where people (including Congressional staff) are losing their policies and paying 2-4 x for replacement policies with higher deductibles and co pays. The only people who may make out are those who are being subsidized.

  2. temblor4 says:

    Keith, the basic fact is that no matter how many times the tea party brays and sprays their lies, once, ten times, a thousand times, even a millions times, they are still bald faced lies.

    Now one then has to consider, why would the tea party LIE about the programs?

    • angienc says:

      Hate to break it to you, bud but everything the Tea Party said about Obamacare — and were called racists for saying it by intellectual pygmies such as yourself — has been proven to be true now that “we passed the law to find out what’s in it” and the rubber has hit the road. The only people who have been proven to have actually lied about it is Obama & the Dems.

  3. david sherzer says:

    Great stuff Keith. It indeed was the culture of the White House and I think a mindset a lot of us have taken with us to our new pursuits. My guess is the “you can keep it” statement became accepted truth, and the Obama fact-checkers (assuming they have them) didn’t bother foot-noting it or foot-noted it against earlier Obama statements.

  4. Allen says:

    Keith, excellent article.

    The issue is not what Obamacare will turn out to be. I’m sure there will be many more surpises in store for the American people. The issue, as you correctly point out, is whether the President knew his statements would be inaccurate and misleading in order to get votes, and the complicity of the White House political appointees to “win” at any cost, even if it sacrifices the truth. But as they all seem to believe, “the end justifies the means.”


  5. […] 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. […]

  6. […] Keith Hennessey, a policy aide in the George W. Bush administration, is blown away reading about how Obama’s lie about keeping your health insurance plan came about. He writes, in a post called Ensuring presidential accuracy & honesty: […]

  7. […] As amazing as that is, “only” 46 percent think Obama knowingly deceived them on “if you like your plan.” Imagine how these numbers might move if/when the rest of the public discovers the truth. […]

  8. […] On forgiveness On respecting the office of the President On telling the turth […]

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