Obama’s Iran-Contra Moment

Listening closely to the president’s noontime presser, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Ronald Reagan’s famous address to the nation in March 1987. Reagan had been caught in a lie – his declaration that he had never traded arms for hostages in his attempt to reach out to Iran (yes, neocons – he was trying to reach out to Iran!). For months, he languished as investigations revealed that he had indeed done such a thing, and his credibility – long his strong point – was at stake. Here’s the address:

The most famous line – addressing his clear statement to the American people that he “did not trade arms for hostages” – was the following:

My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true. But the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.

Today, Obama said something very similar about his statement that “if you like your plan, you can keep it, period.” I love the guy, as I loved Reagan, even though I have not exactly held back when I thought he was screwing things up. And the yawning discrepancy between that unequivocal statement and the “facts and the evidence” of the cancellation of individual market insurance policies these past few weeks was startling, to say the least. Had I misjudged the man? Had he unequivocally peddled a focus-group line that he perfectly well knew was untrue, in order to overcome resistance to healthcare reform? Was he a bullshitter – or something worse, a liar?

As I heard him today, he explained it this way. He says he was focused on the large majority of Americans who get their insurance policies through their employer. And for them, the statement is true, even though, of course, insurance policies are fluid and subject to change. What he ignored was the 5 percent of people in the individual market, whose plans did not meet the standards of the ACA. He said he believed that the grandfather clause would help the majority of those people and that those whose policies could be canceled would see, once the website was up and running, that they now had access to better plans at a similar cost. He also says he believed that the constant churn in the individual market – which cancels or changes policies dramatically and unpredictably all the time – would make cancellations due to the ACA seem like business as usual. He now says he realizes his statement was wrong and irresponsible but that he didn’t fully grasp that at the time, as focused as he was on the 95 percent, and as he believed the grandfather clause would help the rest.

So the key question remains: Is this plausible?

I can’t answer that for you. But it was to me, just as it was plausible to me that Reagan basically did not absorb the full consequences of what he was doing in the Iran-Contra affair, and so lied without really meaning to lie. I think that’s what Obama is trying to say as well: he lied without really meaning to lie. In both cases, the two presidents had to come clean at some point in a very messy situation. Many dismissed the Reagan line as hooey, and a further deception. I didn’t and still don’t. But the important fact is that both Reagan and Obama took ultimate responsibility for the de facto deception. “It’s on me,” the president said today. Reagan, of course, couldn’t do much to redress it, except cooperate in investigations. Obama has offered a temporary administrative fix for a year to retroactively make his promise valid, while retaining the core of the ACA.

The other difference? Reagan had a better grasp of theater. His speech was intimate, direct, and his confession not mediated by a journalist or a press conference. Obama – under acute pressure from the Congress – had to act quickly. But in my view, his mea culpa would have been better served by exactly the kind of personal televised address that Reagan made. Americans are ready to forgive presidents who cop to their mistakes. To break through the chatter, Obama should, in my view, have used the Reagan approach – and still can, of course.

But some other context. Obama’s approval ratings have tumbled because of this credibility gap. They have declined, in Gallup’s measurement, from 45 percent approval to 41 percent in a few weeks. What people forget is that Reagan’s slide was much more dramatic. His approval rating collapsed from 63 percent to 47 percent in one month. That’s the biggest collapse in approval for any president since Gallup began polling. And after that, Reagan came back to the historical average approval rating for all presidents, which is where Obama now is as well. That dotted line is the average for all presidents:

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Obama now is where Reagan was – but sooner in his second term. But Obama, unlike Reagan, can still do something tangible to improve his position: he can make the ACA work and he should soon begin to make a much more aggressive, positive case for the reform. He has an administrative task right now. But he must soon also engage in a critical political task: to get off the defensive and onto the offensive; to make the case for the good things the ACA can do, and is doing; to remind people of the radical uncertainty of the past, and to demand that the Republicans offer more than just cynical, partisan spitballs to address the unfair, unjust and grotesquely inefficient mess that the ACA was designed to reform. That was the gist of his presser today. It needs to become a stump-speech. He needs to get out of his White House administrative mode as soon as he gets a grip on the reform, and launch a campaign mode against a return to the wild west of the past in healthcare and to expose the Republicans as cynical, opportunist critics who refuse to offer any alternative and any constructive reform.

But soon he needs to channel the core argument of this presser into a face-to-face talk with Americans. He needs to be as crisp and candid as Reagan was:

“I screwed up. I’m sorry. I didn’t think it was a lie, but it was. And I’ve changed the law to address the false promise. Now let’s make this reform work.”

Yes, he can.