Obama and “what we said was”

President Obama official portrait

I won again!

How PolitiFact’s 2013 “Lie of the Year” selection was even worse than you thought

It was Nov. 4, 2013, and insurance companies had already started to send cancellation notices to customers whose policies failed to meet the administration’s “essential benefits” standards under the Affordable Care Act.  The media recognized the failure of the president’s pledge that Americans could keep the insurance policies they liked.  The story quickly ballooned in the public consciousness.  President Obama had to make a statement.  And he tried to explain what had happened (bold emphasis added):

People are acting like this is some new phenomenon.  Every year there was churn in this individual market.  The average increase was double-digits on premiums in the same market, with or without the Affordable Care Act.  People were getting, oftentimes, a very bad deal.  And as a consequence, what you had is Americans who’d be dropped from coverage, exposed to massive double-digit premium increases, or most frequently, they’d just be denied access altogether because of some preexisting condition.

Now, if you have or had one of these plans before the Affordable Care Act came into law and you really like that plan, what we said was you could keep it if it hasn’t changed since the law was passed.  So we wrote into the Affordable Care Act you’re grandfathered in on that plan.

But if the insurance company changes it, then what we’re saying is they’ve got to change it to a higher standard.  They’ve got to make it better.  They’ve got to improve the quality of the plan that they’re selling.  That’s part of the promise that we made, too.  That’s why we went out of our way to make sure that the law allowed for grandfathering, but if we had allowed these old plans to be downgraded or sold to new enrollees once the law had already passed, then we would have broken an even more important promise — making sure that Americans gain access to health care that doesn’t leave them one illness away from financial ruin.

Mainstream fact checker PolitiFact zeroed in on the middle paragraph:

The way we read that comment — and, judging by the contentious White House press briefing the following day, the way other Washington journalists read it — was that Obama was saying that people had been misreporting the pledge he had made.

It wasn’t that he said “if you like your plan, you can keep it” — it was “if your plan hasn’t changed since the law passed,” you can keep it.

Obama spoke on Nov. 4.  The press briefing the next day was Nov. 5.  PolitiFact published its fact check on Nov. 6.  Was PolitiFact in a hurry or was this fact check just that easy?

Accurate fact checking requires right interpretation.  PolitiFact reported the administration’s explanation:

The day after Obama claimed that he’d said “you can keep it if it hasn’t changed since the law passed,” reporters grilled White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.

Carney claimed Obama was referring to the rules that [Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen] Sebelius issued in June 2010.

We detected no serious effort from PolitiFact to assess the administration’s explanation.   We’ll do that now.

“What we said was” as a rhetorical device

White House Press Secretary Jay CarneyIn the middle of the contemporary controversy over the president’s “you can keep it” pledge, it is natural to think the president is rewriting history when his description of “what we said was” doesn’t match his often-stated pledge.

But fact checkers have a responsibility to seriously consider other possibilities.

Carney’s explanation carried some initial plausibility with us.  We’d noticed President Obama often uses “what we said was” to refer to policy, rules and legislation in his speeches and statements.  Indeed, we failed to find a single case on the White House website where the phrase was used to correct a misperception about a claim from the administration.

What’s the case for PolitiFact’s interpretation?

PolitiFact wasn’t alone in concluding that Obama was performing a minor rewrite on the history of his statements about the ACA.  Many sources, including conservative bloggers, piled on.

As we note above, the growth of the controversy surrounding Obama’s statement creates a narrative that lends itself to PolitiFact’s interpretation.  Obama had some explaining to do.  The phrase “what we said was” fits with that interpretation.  And, importantly, if this part of the statement wasn’t meant to explain what many people now view as an empty promise, then Obama skipped the opportunity to specifically address a statement that has weighed heavily on his credibility.

Finally, a solid majority seem to agree with PolitiFact’s interpretation.

The case for Carney’s explanation

Carney’s explanation is consistent with the words Obama used, and Obama has a history of using the phrase for reasons other than correcting people about what he said.  That lays a strong foundation of plausibility for Carney’s version of events.

Importantly, up through Nov. 5 the mainstream media provided pretty good cover for Obama.  For example, PolitiFact hadn’t rated his pledge that people could keep insurance plans they liked any lower than “Half True.”  As we note above, it took PolitiFact just two days to rate Obama’s Nov. 4 statement “Pants on Fire.”  The obviousness of the lie counts against PolitiFact’s explanation and in favor of Carney’s plausible explanation.  Obama had nothing to gain by clumsily trying to rewrite history.  But explaining the law and why it has the features it does would help shore up support from his own party.

Carney’s explanation makes way too much sense to set it aside in favor of the popular view PolitiFact used in its fact checking.  As a result, the statement PolitiFact rated “Pants on Fire” was very likely simply true.

This is important because PolitiFact combined this “Pants on Fire” rating with the “Half True” it gave Obama’s “you can keep your plan” pledge and awarded them the “Lie of the Year” for 2013.  This suggests PolitiFact does its fact checking with one finger held aloft to judge the wind’s direction.

At this point I should remind my conservative readers that I am a conservative.  I think Barack Obama, like President Bill Clinton before him, routinely misleads his audience with willful intent.  But the evidence says this specific instance wasn’t one of those times.  PolitiFact blew the rating.  Obama didn’t lie, though he made a statement so ready-made for mockery it challenges Nancy Pelosi’s “pass the bill to find out what’s in it” line.

Afterword:  the treatment from other fact checkers

The Washington Post Fact Checker

The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler followed along with the dominant narrative, though he issued no rating specific to Obama’s “what we said was” claim:

Obama, in trying to tweak his original pledge, added this caveat earlier this week: “If you had or have one of these plans before the Affordable Care Act came into law and you really like that plan, what we said was, you could keep it if hasn’t changed since the law’s passed. You’re grandfathered in.”


FactCheck.org also appeared to accept the prevailing narrative, taking the president’s statement as an attempt to explain his past promises:

Obama, in a Nov. 4, 2013, speech, tried to explain his past promises by saying “what we said was you can keep it if it hasn’t changed since the law passed.” Asked when the president had previously included that detail, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, in a Nov. 5 press briefing, said Obama was referring to the law’s clause allowing insurers and employers to “grandfather” plans offered before the bill became law.

Like the Washington Post Fact Checker, FactCheck.org produced no fact check specific to Obama’s “what we said was” statement.

Updated Jan 7, 2016 to clean up a redundancy in the opening paragraph
Corrected Dec. 19, 2021 to change “for 2014” to “for 2013.”

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