Words can cause presidents self-inflicted wounds

Jeff Greenfield
Yahoo News
President Barack Obama gestures to describe the height of his daughters as he speaks at an Organizing for Action event in Washington, Monday, Nov. 4, 2013. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

If I were putting together a presidential staff — an unlikely possibility — my first hire would be a rhetorical inspector general for the White House speechwriting office, whose only job would be to examine every prepared speech for particularly memorable lines — and think long and hard before permitting the president to utter them.

Sure, we remember our leaders for the inspirational words they’ve spoken: “The only thing we have to fear...” “Ask not what your country can do...” “The shining city on a hill...” But these words are disconnected from any specific proposal or policy or controversy.

When it comes to a matter of substance, presidents have often found themselves suffering from self-inflicted wounds that come in the form of especially compelling words. President Barack Obama’s promise that “if you like your current insurance, you can keep that insurance,” is only the most recent example.

In 1988, when George Herbert Walker Bush wanted to draw a clear line between himself and his Democratic opponent — and to strike a note that would help him dispel the “wimp factor" — he told the Republican Convention that when the Democratic Congress pressed him for revenues, he would tell them in no uncertain terms: “Read my lips — no new taxes!”

It was a terrific applause line, repeated in TV commercials throughout the campaign ... and it was one big reason why Bush became a one-term president. The line was so memorable that when the Democratic Congress forced Bush to raise taxes as part of a deficit-reduction plan — and forced the White House to acknowledge that fact — it completely undermined his position as an incumbent.

During the 1992 campaign, every time the Bush team tried to paint his Democratic challenger, Bill Clinton, as “Slick Willie,” the response was immediate: How can the same man who violated his most unambiguous pledge challenge anybody on inconsistency?

The same thing happened to the second President Bush, when his too-clever-by-half White House staff arranged for him to land a Lockheed S-3 Viking on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln under a banner reading: “Mission Accomplished” — a reference to the ousting of Saddam Hussein during the first days of the Iraq War.

In the ensuing years, as chaos and a near-civil war engulfed that country, that memorable phrase came to symbolize the illusions and delusions of the Bush administration. It did not matter that the president often referred in speeches to the likelihood of difficulties in rebuilding Iraq — “Mission Accomplished” came to mean that Bush had been clueless about the potential dangers of that war of choice.

Now Obama finds himself in a similar situation. All the explanations and footnotes now being offered by his team — that a relatively small percentage of Americans might have to change health insurance plans, the plans being canceled aren’t adequate — are utterly irrelevant. Why? Because Obama offered reassurance about an area most of us approach with embedded fear and anxiety.

The American health care system is already burdened by complexity and confusion. Most of us have no idea of what it will really cost should we get sick (Frank Lalli, veteran magazine editor, now a writer at Parade, has made a new career out of trying to cut through the thicket of confusion (See, for example.)

That flat promise by Obama that people could keep their health insurance was designed to calm the fears that an ambitious new health care program would throw consumers into uncertainty and force them to navigate through a welter of plans (never mind the possibility that the navigation tool would not work). The White House may have feared that a more thorough, complex and accurate explanation would sow more confusion and fear.

This is, of course, exactly the problem any White House would face in taking the challenge of reforming one-seventh of the national economy. The alternative — an easily understood, comforting pledge that was not true — must have been very attractive. It has now blown up in the president’s face.

Why? It’s the problem with memorable words; people remember them.