WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Normally brimming with self-confidence, President Barack Obama showed an emotion on Thursday he rarely shares with Americans: humility.
He strode to a White House podium with a jarring admission: He believes he has lost the confidence of the American people and deserves the blame for the rocky rollout of his signature healthcare law.
The concession was indirect, to be sure, as he spoke of “winning back the confidence of the American people,” but nonetheless was unusual in the history of the American presidency, let alone in modern, never-admit-a-mistake Washington.
“There are times I thought we were kind of slapped around unjustly,” Obama said, referring to previous criticism aimed his way over the past five years. “This one’s deserved.”
The healthcare law known as Obamacare - seen as Obama’s biggest domestic policy achievement - was designed to bring affordable health insurance to millions of uninsured Americans.
But the launch of a government website to enable people to obtain insurance policies has been marred by technical problems that have often rendered it inaccessible. In addition, insurance companies have canceled millions of existing policies that failed to meet the law’s requirements.
Obama’s comments came as he announced a fix designed to stem the wave of cancellations.
Left unspoken was what sort of fix Obama might make in his staff or in how he advances policy objectives with three years left in office and many legislative priorities still unfulfilled, including immigration reform.
Obama admitted that he was never “informed directly” about looming problems with the website launched on October 1.
There was no doubt, he added in yet another remarkable mea culpa, that his oft-repeated promise had turned out to be not accurate - that under his law Americans would be able to keep their health insurance plans if they liked them.
If the first step on the road to redemption is an acknowledgment of the problem, Obama did himself a favor.
“It’s very striking to hear a president talking that way,” said presidential historian Michael Beschloss.
“Usually it’s a JFK saying he was ‘the responsible officer of the government’ after Bay of Pigs,” the botched CIA-sponsored invasion of Cuba in 1961 during John F. Kennedy’s presidency, he added.
“Or Nixon, after Watergate began, that he would ‘accept’ responsibility,” Beschloss said, referring to the scandal that led to President Richard Nixon’s 1974 resignation.
“Presidents are reluctant to say they’re sorry,” added presidential historian Thomas Alan Schwartz of Vanderbilt University. “I think he’s hurt by the perception of incompetence. That’s not good for any president to look incompetent.”
Obama has drawn criticism in recent weeks for an inability to ensure that his policies are being properly implemented.
“I think it was necessary to do that,” said Democratic strategist Bob Shrum, referring to Obama’s mea culpa.
Obama was forced to make his public appearance in part by Democrats who see the problems with the implementation of a healthcare law that they backed in Congress as damaging their re-election chances in the November 2014 mid-term elections.
Public opinion polls have caused alarm bells to ring among congressional Democrats, notably a Quinnipiac University survey this week that put Obama’s approval rating at 39 percent.
The party that holds the White House typically loses congressional seats during mid-term elections, and the risk rises if a president’s job approval rating is below 50 percent.
Obama’s 39 percent rating put him at the same level that his Republican predecessor George W. Bush experienced at the same point in his presidency.
“President Obama’s misstatement, ‘If you like your health plan, you can keep it,’ left a bad taste with a lot of people,” said Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. “Nearly half of the voters, 46 percent, think he knowingly deceived them.”
Obama said he felt personally responsible for the political challenges his fellow Democrats face.
“There is no doubt that our failure to roll out the ACA (Affordable Care Act) smoothly has put a burden on Democrats, whether they’re running or not, because they stood up and supported this,” he said.
“I feel deeply responsible for making it harder for them, rather than easier for them, to continue to promote ... the core values that I think led them to support this thing in the first place,” Obama added.
Behind the scenes at the White House, the problems with the healthcare law consume meeting after meeting. Administration officials are trying to assure Obama’s allies that they know they have to get the problems ironed out by the end of the year.
The mood behind the scenes, said one Democratic official with close ties to the White House, was one of sober determination.
“They know they don’t have an easy haul here. There’s no sense of panic. There’s a sense that they got to be on top of the execution day after day, that they can’t screw anything up,” he said.
Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Fred Barbash and Will Dunham