President Obama is known for his lack of gaffes, but he's still human. On Wednesday, he made a rare apology to art history students for his comment last month that "folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree." It's not exactly a smoking gun of insensitivity, but he's sorry all the same.
It must be tough sometimes, having the whole world's eyes on you. (To say nothing of their ears!) As president, much of your public life must be scheduled, scripted, and drilled down to individual, inoffensive components. This is true despite equal necessity for charisma and authenticty. The gap between those polar demands — careful prudence and casual charm — can be fertile ground for the kind of gaffes, misstatements, or untruths which demand apology. Let's take a look at Obama's most notable I'm Sorry moments.
His 'Special' Bowling Skills
Secret U.S. Experimentation On Guatemalans in the 1940s
This is a different sort of apology. Wellesley University professor Susan Reverby discovered that in the mid-to-late 1940s, the United States government engaged in a series of atrocious experiments on unwilling, unwitting Guatemalans. Reverby discovered documents that revealed that hundreds of Guatemalans were purposefully infected with syphilis by the U.S. government.
American doctors would allow known syphilitic prostitutes to infect their patients, or directly infect people via bacteria "poured onto the men’s penises or on forearms and faces that were slightly abraded." In a few cases, they even resorted to "spinal punctures" to properly transfer the disease.
President Obama personally called the President of Guatemala to apologize for his country's abysmal past behavior, a gesture that was echoed in public comments by then-Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, who called the news "tragic" and "reprehensible."
Commenting on California AG Kamala Harris' Looks
Speaking at a fundraiser in San Francisco, the city for which current California Attorney General Kamala Harris served as district attorney from 2004 to early 2011, President Obama praised the up-and-coming Democrat for her brains, brilliance, and effectiveness. But he had something else in mind as well.
You have to be careful to, first of all, say she is brilliant and she is dedicated and she is tough, and she is exactly what you’d want in anybody who is administering the law, and making sure that everybody is getting a fair shake. She also happens to be, by far, the best looking attorney general in the country. It’s true! C’mon.
"If You Like Your Plan..."
Come on, you knew this one was coming. However history looks back on this particular apology is very much in doubt, because it hinges completely on the success — or failure — of the Affordable Care Act.
In November 2013, President Obama was forced to apologize for assuring the American people that they could keep their existing health insurance plan if they were satisfied with it already. Small problem: because some existing policies cover less than what the ACA views as the minimum acceptable coverage, this ended up being untrue.
Whether someone accepts the apology may as much to do with how they feel about the ACA as anything else.
Making 2014 Harder For Democrats
There is no doubt that our failure to roll out the [health care law] smoothly has put a burden on Democrats whether they’re running or not. ... 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. When we don’t do a good job on the roll out we are letting them down. And I don’t like doing that.