Obama Is Sorry, Art History Majors: 5 Notable Apologies From The President

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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

After taping a March 2009 episode of The Tonight Show, President Obama knew before he even watched that he'd done something really dumb.

So he called up Tom Shriver, chairman of the board of the Special Olympics, while flying back to Washington D.C. on Air Force One. He wanted to apologize for the ill-advised joke he'd made to Jay Leno earlier in the day about his dubious abilities as a bowler.

He explained that he'd recently bowled a 129 (for all you non-bowlers, that's not very good) and joked "It's like the Special Olympics or something."

Shriver spoke approvingly of his talk with Obama, calling him "very sincere." That notwithstanding, this is a good example of the traditionally thoughtless gaffe, rooted in a casually offensive cultural understanding of what the words "Special Olympics" mean. Words, after all, do matter — and presidential words often matter more. 

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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."

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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.

Amid accusations he'd made a sexist and reductive comment that would never have been said to a man in her position, Obama called Harris to apologize. She reportedly accepted, having herself never having actually raised issue with the remark. According to White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, the pair are "old friends."

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"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.

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Making 2014 Harder For Democrats

In apologizing for the Affordable Care Act's rollout, President Obama also needed to assuage the angst of his own party. He had badly hurt their electoral prospects by fumbling the ACA's early implementation.

Which is why, in the November aftermath of the above apology to the American people over cancelled insurance plans, he also took a moment to try to make good with congressional 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.

If the White House and the Democratic Party manages to turn the ACA from a political weakness into a political benefit, the GOP is in a boat-load of trouble. If they can even merely neutralize people's vehement feelings towards it, that could be enough. But if the enrollment figures hit a dry patch between now and November, Democrats up for election in 2014 may find themselves unwilling to accept this particular presidential apology.

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