Recovering from the "Lie of the Year"

Recovering from the "Lie of the Year"

By Jude Barry

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 20: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference at the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House December 20, 2013 in Washington, DC. President Obama spoke about the economy and the Affordable Care Act and answered questions from members of the media before leaving for his two-week vacation in Hawaii.
SourceAlex Wong/Getty


Because it’s too soon for a lame duck president.

By Jude Barry

A website can be fixed.  Policies can be amended.  But can President Barack Obama ever recover from an inaccurate promise that some consider one of the worst presidential lines in history?

His statement that “If you like your health-care plan, you can keep it” was named PolitiFact’s Lie of the Year. When President Bill Clinton told OZY that Obama should keep his promise, it kicked off a national debate. A few days later, Obama adjusted the policy to allow people who were losing their coverage to keep it for another year.

Obama’s critics suggest that “keep it” will become his signature statement. Some even consider it one of history’s worst presidential lines. Fox News’ Sean Hannity likened the statement to Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook” and Bill Clinton’s “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” White House reporters openly speculated about how badly this would tarnish the president’s legacy.

But a premier Democratic speechwriter and strategist thinks the controversy over “keep it” will dissipate — perhaps soon.

Bob at a desk with his hands up as he speaks

Democratic strategist Bob Shrum

Source Getty

“Ultimately, the political fallout depends on health-care reform itself,” said Bob Shrum, a New York University professor who advised eight Democratic presidential candidates, wrote some of the party’s most renowned speeches during the 1970s and 1980s and worked on President Clinton’s State of the Union addresses. “If there’s one to two million people signed up, and Obamacare becomes a set part of American life, by fall Republican strategists will tell their clients to run on another issue.”

For Obama, given the partisanship on Capitol Hill and the complexities of health care, the road to political recovery will be long and steep. 

I asked Shrum, who hired me in the 1980s when he was Sen. Ted Kennedy’s press secretary and speechwriter, if he would have written such a declarative line given the complexities of health-care policy. “Sure,” he said. ”I don’t think the White House staff thought twice about that line. The Clinton administration said something similar with their health-care effort. The president thought he was speaking the truth. There was no sense of deception.”

To Shrum, believability is key. The American public trusted that President Franklin Roosevelt was telling the truth when he said, “Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.” Pearl Harbor gave Roosevelt the opportunity to change course without suffering political consequences. In fact, Roosevelt’s highest approval rating (83 percent) was achieved in the month following the U.S. entry in World War II.

For the first time, fewer than half of Americans polled told Gallup that President Obama was a ’strong and decisive leader.’  

Today, surveys show the public may have some serious doubts about Obama. For the first time, fewer than half of Americans polled told Gallup that President Obama was a “strong and decisive leader.” The perception of Obama as “honest and trustworthy” also tumbled.

The White House clearly knows this is a politically precarious time. Obama was forced to apologize for his misstatements on a lengthy NBC news interview in early November. Shrum said that was right thing to do. Just as President John Kennedy took full responsibility for the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, all presidents have to assume operational responsibility for major initiatives.

“For a president, there are no excuses,” said Shrum. Kennedy also achieved his highest approval rating (83 percent) in the Gallup poll in the month following the invasion and apology.

For Obama, given the partisanship on Capitol Hill and the complexities of health care, the road to political recovery will be long and steep. His advantage is time. He has two more years to address policy and operational issues, and he personally doesn’t have to face voters again. “Keep it” will likely be considered a politically embarrassing phrase but will not be ranked among the worst presidential lines.

For now, that ”honor” goes to George H. W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Lyndon Johnson. Each one uttered signature lines that created serious political consequences and ultimately cost them a second term.

1988, Vice President George H. W. Bush: “Read my lips: no new taxes.”

That line was the sound bite of candidate Bush’s convention acceptance speech, written by speechwriter Peggy Noonan. It was a strong, unequivocal statement from a candidate who once called Reaganomics “voodoo economics.” Bush won the 1988 election, then raised taxes. His words were used against him repeatedly to defeat him in his 1992 re-election campaign by the Democratic nominee, then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton.

1979, President Jimmy Carter: “It is a crisis of confidence.”

Also known as the “Malaise Speech,” President Carter asked a nation to adapt to a new age of greater limits and less self-indulgence. His frankness caused his approval ratings to rise after the speech, although Shrum, who wrote speeches for Carter in 1976 before resigning, says that approval ratings frequently rise after major presidential addresses. Shrum believes Carter suffered from his effort to shift responsibility for the nation’s ills to the American people and others. Following the speech, Carter asked his entire cabinet to resign. A year later, Ronald Reagan defeated Carter by contrasting an optimistic vision with the president’s pessimism.

1964, President Lyndon Johnson: “We still seek no wider war.”

President Johnson announced to the nation after the Gulf of Tonkin that the U.S. would not escalate military action after claims that North Vietnamese warships attacked U.S. vessels. It was later discovered the opposite was true. The Vietnam escalation followed shortly thereafter.  Johnson promised a limited and short-term military intervention that ballooned rapidly and became a major issue in the 1968 presidential election.  Responding to widespread national disaffection and serious primary challenges from antiwar senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, Johnson decided in early 1968 to limit military escalation and passed on a second term.