Barack Obama has been subjected to as many personal attacks as any modern president.
Terrorist. Traitor. Hater of America. Secret Muslim.
Unusually for a politician, however, the one thing he hasn’t been called much is a liar, except by his most adamant critics.
That’s all changed now. Obama is being widely called out for having claimed, repeatedly, that under the Affordable Care Act, people who liked their health insurance plans could keep them.
This was a key selling point. Yet it has turned out not to be true for everyone in the individual insurance market. There have been a number of reports that personnel in the White House knew this would be the case.
That leaves Obama in a terrible position — having Americans trying to decide whether he lied intentionally, or wasn’t well informed enough to tell the truth.
It’s a common presidential predicament, but it never looks good when a president’s aides rush to defend him from accusations of lying by saying he was unaware of all the circumstances.
“When you’ve got a choice between being duplicitous or out of touch, out of touch is probably better, but it’s a bad choice for presidents,” says Mary Stuckey, a Georgia State University professor who has written several books about presidential rhetoric.
Central To The Job
Obama’s critics on the right — who have always complained that he lacked the proper experience for the job — have frequently chided this president for not staying resolutely on top of his administration’s business.
They howled, for instance, at his claims about being out of the loop when it came to the bungled Fast and Furious gun-swap program, or that he only found out that the IRS was targeting conservative organizations for scrutiny from news reports.
It’s not just Republicans who are growing more skeptical — the situation is just weeks removed from an episode in which the country nearly went to war with Syria to preserve Obama’s “credibility” about use of chemical weapons being a red line.
And it seems doubtful to many people that Obama could have been kept in the dark when it comes to tapping the phone and email accounts of foreign leaders.
“We have testimony from some of his aides that he asked questions about the [HealthCare.gov] website all the time,” says George Edwards, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University. “If that’s the case, he was misled, but it’s the president’s responsibility not to be misled. It does make the president look bad if he doesn’t know what he’s supposed to know.”
A Long Way From Honest Abe
All the current talk about Obama being a “bystander” president may quickly be forgotten. Remember, the political world’s chatter just a couple of weeks ago was dominated by the idea Republicans had politically self-immolated by shutting the government down.
But large numbers of Americans harbored doubts about the trustworthiness of his immediate predecessors. Bill Clinton was called “Slick Willie” long before he lied about having sexual relations with a White House intern and parsed the meaning of the word “is.”
“Bush Lied, People Died,” became a popular bumper-sticker slogan on the left after some of the reasons for going to war with Iraq — Saddam Hussein’s links to al-Qaida and the presence of weapons of mass destruction — proved illusory.
Coming after all that, Obama held out the promise of being a different sort of politician. It’s that patina that has now begun to rub away.
Obama’s frequent promises that people could stick with their doctors and insurance plans was a way of arguing that, although the status quo had to change, those who were happy with the way things were wouldn’t have to change.
It may have been too clever by half.
“He was trying to thread the needle on an issue where people are incredibly risk-averse, says Brendan Nyhan, a government professor at Dartmouth College.
Having voters and the media grow increasingly skeptical is an almost inevitable aspect of the second-term blues for presidents, Nyhan says.
“Obama has had less of the slippery politician narrative stuck on him than Clinton, but that image can change,” he says. “Bush was portrayed as a straight shooter well into his first term, but eventually that narrative about him changed somewhat.”
Protecting The President
It’s absurd to hold any president responsible for everything that his administration does. The federal government is one of the largest entities on the planet and no White House can know about every grant program or excessively wasteful agency party.
That can play to a president’s advantage. As Nyhan points out, it’s common for administrations that run into trouble to attempt to shield the president from blame as best they can.
“When things are going well for a president, they’re typically portrayed as being in control or in command,” he says. “When things aren’t going well, they’re portrayed as out of the loop, or the administration is in disarray.”
Those are storylines media outlets are always ready to run with.
Obama also faces the problem that the issues under discussion are so large. This isn’t some little boondoggle out of an agency no one had ever heard of before it was dipped in the media scandal sauce.
“Health care is the highest priority, the signature policy of the administration,” says Edwards, the Texas A&M political scientist. “Certainly spying on foreign leaders — I mean, allies, the people you deal with regularly — cannot be viewed as a minor matter.”
Minding The Store
All presidents must delegate. But if Obama is perceived as not taking the lead on issues that are central to his presidency — or is refusing to take responsibility when things go bad — that will cause real damage.
“You can only stand up so many times and say, ‘I don’t like this, but I didn’t know,” says Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, a political scientist at the University of North Texas who has written books on presidential speeches and leadership. “If it happens too many times, it suggests a flaw in the White House decision-making structure, a White House that perhaps insulates him too much.”
And if people come to believe Obama’s deliberating lying about his role to save face, that will only compound the president’s problems.
An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released Wednesday found that Obama’s job approval had reached an all time low. For the first time, more Americans viewed Obama unfavorably than favorably — 41 percent viewed him favorably, while 45 percent had negative feelings toward him.)
“In the short-term, Obama is not controlling the way people think about his administration,” says Stuckey, the Georgia State professor. “Obama risks losing the people who were on his side [regarding health care], and a big part of that is he seems to have been duplicitous.”