This past Thursday President Obama confronted criticisms of the rocky implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Included in these critiques are technical issues with the website, HealthCare.gov, as well as accusations of lying on Obama’s part. Obama claimed many times that no one would be forced to leave their health care provider, however nearly 12 million Americans who buy individual policies have encountered exactly that. Accusations of lying flying through the media are reminiscent of the President Bush debacle when he used the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq as a pivotal reason in entering America in the Iraq War. When, after an intensive search, no weapons were found, the Bush administration received a similar reaction of anger from the public and media.
Interestingly, in his book The Performance of Politics, Alexander uses Obama’s 2008 campaign as an example of creating a “hinge” or change in history brought on by a new candidate. “Barack Obama draws the bright, redolent line between sullied past [Bush] and golden future,” (8). Even more, during his campaign, Obama announced, “I want to inspire a renewal of morality in politics,” a clear reference to the lack of trust in the Bush administration. Yet, he now finds himself surrounded by comparisons to his predecessor regarding such morality. The goal of this post is to compare and contrast how Bush and Obama approached communication to the public following their respective dilemmas, and how the media and public responded.
In his State of the Union address in January of 2003, President Bush implied Iraq was working on developing nuclear weapons. His statements were largely based on an Intelligence report in 2002 that claimed “high confidence” in Iraq possessing such weapons. By March, the U.S. military and other members of an American-led coalition invaded Iraq, followed by a newly formed Iraq Survey Group to search for weapons of mass destruction (1). However, the unified leadership the country was looking for as it headed into war began to disintegrate (3). In July, CIA Director George Tenet began the backtracking, pointing out specific words in Bush’s State of the Union explanation that could be potentially inaccurate. The rest of the year brought fruitless searches by the ISG, with two head inspectors coming to the conclusion that there were no stockpiles of weapons (1). At this point the message to the public began to spin out of control, with the country’s leader saying one thing and others slowly defecting from the initial rhetoric. By 2004, report after report had been released further claiming that there are no such weapons of mass destruction and the intelligence used was incorrect. Bush responded to the final report from the ISG, still insisting on no weapons, only by further demonizing Saddam instead of addressing the findings. In fact, the closing statements informing the public that the “physical search” for the weapons was over came from the White House spokesman to reporters (1). There was no sort of formal apology or explanation of fault from the President.
Whereas Bush began to separate himself from the narrative and the search by not directly addressing it, Obama has been closely and personally tied to the Affordable Care Act from the beginning. He embraced the Republican-given name Obamacare, and many consider it to be his signature initiative (7). After those 12 million with individual policies were forced to leave their healthcare providers after they had been told this would not happen, attacks began on Obamacare, and thus on Obama himself. “The administration eventually knew that many policies would be changed by the insurance carriers after Obamacare was introduced, and the associated political uproar since its October 1 online rollout has also angered Democrats and fueled Republican efforts to extend related controversies onto the campaign trail” (2). Questions revolving around technological issues with the website and Obama’s honesty are spreading with a similar ferventness as they did with Bush, the very president that Obama campaigned on being a “change” from. However, Obama has addressed the concerns directly explaining, “I am sorry that they are finding themselves in this situation based on assurances they got from me” (2). After this apology and claim of fault, he used language to connect himself to the public, saying, “I am very frustrated, but I’m also somebody who, if I fumble the ball, you know I’m going to wait until I get the next play; and then I’m going to try to run as hard as I can and do right by the team” (7).
Although both presidents took different approaches to handling and communicating the situation, Bush with distance and Obama with directness, the initial public response from both was quite similar. In fact, in the first week of November in the fifth year of their presidencies, Obama and Bush have nearly identical approval numbers, according to the latest Gallup polling. Obama came in with 39% approval of his job performance and Bush 40% (4). Even more, prospective candidates for the following election in each president’s respective parties sought distance from the leaders. Saturday Night Live produced a popular sketch describing John McCain’s desire to separate himself from a Bush endorsement, and Bill Clinton recently spoke out against Obama’s healthcare mistakes in a move to seemingly help distance Hilary Clinton from the president before she runs in 2016.
Looking at Bush’s job approval ratings, post the 9/11 spike, his approval steadily dropped for the rest of his time in office, putting him in this toxic position. Although there were other contributing factors, such as Katrina, a large reason the WMD scandal had such a lasting effect on his presidency is because of the media constantly addressing it (5). The majority of the media, especially the New York Times, jumped on the bandwagon of WMD in Iraq, doing in-depth investigations on the matter. When the disjointed stories and doubts began permeating the previously united force, they could very well have felt that they had something to prove, with the NYT doing a popular editorial apologizing for their contribution. Also, without a definitive confirmation of yes or no, the question of WMDs grew more and more pertinent and took over public, and thus media, attention, with interview after interview of top officials with differing opinions (6). Although it is too early to tell, the most recent dip in Obama’s approval ratings could take a different course than Bush because of his direct response to the lying criticisms. He similarly has many other scandals under his belt (NSA), but through his most recent apology he has already begun to change the narrative of getting back to the policy and the technological changes of Obamacare, rather than allowing others to muse over the morality of Obama himself. Perhaps the morality of his approach to the scandal, rather than the content of the scandal itself, allows Obama to maintain the constructed hero on the “hinge” of change that Alexander described.
Alexander, Jeffrey C. The Performance of Politics: Obama’s Victory and the Democratic Struggle for Power. New York: Oxford UP, 2010. Print. (8)