Commentary Magazine


Robert Gibbs’s Fuzzy Memory

It’s easy to imagine the Obama administration advisors and speechwriters who left the White House before the disastrous launch of ObamaCare grappling with a mix of guilt and relief as the bad press continues. Yet like the prophet Jonah aboard a ship whose crew realizes he has something to do with their current misfortune, some of the administration’s veterans haven’t gone quite far enough away from Nineveh.

Robert Gibbs, the president’s former press secretary and communications specialist, is getting the Jonah treatment. Gibbs is a regular on the political talk-show circuit, but the same reason for his status as a sought-after pundit–his access and his recent presence in the administration of a president still in office–is catching up with him. Today on Morning Joe, the hosts asked a fairly obvious question of Gibbs: doesn’t he have something to do with the sticker- and access-shock being experienced by millions of Americans who were told that if they liked their health-care plan and their doctor they could keep them? That led to the following exchange, via Dan Halper:

“Robert. you’re a communications guy and you were there,” said an MSNBC host this morning. “How could the president say, and there’s a clip we’ll show where he says it many, many, many, many — I remember it — ‘You can keep your plan.’ When you know that 5 percent of the people, and 5 percent is obviously a small part of the story and overall the impact if you believe in this law is better than what happens here, but it’s millions of people. You know what’s going to happen in the press. You know there’s going to be hardships for those people. Why would you let your president say that?”

“Well, look, I don’t recall significant discussions around some of the verbage (sic) on this, to be a hundred percent honest with you,” said Gibbs this morning.

“But do you agree it was a wrong move?”

“Oh, well, certainly,” said Gibbs. “I mean, I don’t think anybody dealing with this today finds what was said. Now, I do think some explanation in terms of the fact that policies that were in place at the point at which the president signed them were grandfathered in for this.”

Robert Gibbs doesn’t “recall significant discussions” about the words the president was very careful to use repeatedly? Perhaps the Wall Street Journal’s weekend piece on the ObamaCare messaging strategy would help refresh his memory:

When the question arose, Mr. Obama’s advisers decided that the assertion was fair, interviews with more than a dozen people involved in crafting and explaining the president’s health-care plan show.

But at times, there was second-guessing. At one point, aides discussed whether Mr. Obama might use more in-depth discussions, such as media interviews, to explain the nuances of the succinct line in his stump speeches, a former aide said. Officials worried, though, that delving into details such as the small number of people who might lose insurance could be confusing and would clutter the president’s message.

“You try to talk about health care in broad, intelligible points that cut through, and you inevitably lose some accuracy when you do that,” the former official said.

The former official added that in the midst of a hard-fought political debate “if you like your plan, you can probably keep it” isn’t a salable point.

No kidding. If you tried to sell ObamaCare honestly to the public, they wouldn’t buy it. If you just make up stuff you think they want to hear and pretend that’s the law you’re trying to pass, they may indeed support it–enough to get it through Congress, anyway. That’s the debate Obama’s advisors had: should the president tell the truth, or should he continue to mislead the country so he could get what he wanted?

We know which choice the president made. We don’t know exactly how his team of advisors felt individually about that choice. The story doesn’t reveal whether, for example, Robert Gibbs sided with the president in his belief that under no circumstances was he to risk his signature legislation on something so trifling as the truth.

But was Gibbs not privy to the debate? It’s possible, of course, which is what gives Gibbs plausible deniability–the phrase that has come to define the way this president and his administration approach governance. But there is still something off-putting about Gibbs criticizing the administration’s “wrong move,” as Mika Brzezinski termed it.

In fact, “wrong move” is a bit too kind. That phrase suggests a tactical mistake, not an intentional campaign to mislead the American public to pass legislation that will deprive a large segment of the public of their health care. Gibbs was part of the team that undertook that campaign, and there’s no reason his return to the private sector should get him a free pass on the ObamaCare disaster.

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