The White House was forced to issue a sort-of apology Monday following two days of criticism for its decision not to send a high-ranking official to Paris to participate in a massive protest in that city over the weekend. "I think it's fair to say that we should have sent someone with a higher profile" than the U.S. ambassador, White House spokesman Josh Earnest acknowledged.
We say it's a "sort of" apology for the simple reason that the White House doesn't usually offer direct apologies of the "I am sorry" variety. In part, that's because issues are often nuanced, as was this one; Earnest explained that security concerns likely would have prohibited the participation of the president himself, for example. But suggesting that even this sort-of-apology from the White House is rare is not entirely accurate.
A brief history of White House apologies
- March 2009. After President Obama made a joke about the Special Olympics on the "Tonight Show," former press secretary Robert Gibbs offered regrets. "I know that the president believes that the Special Olympics are a triumph of the human spirit," he said, "and I think he understands that they deserve a lot better than — than the thoughtless joke that he made last night, and he apologizes for that."
- July 2009. Obama offers a sort-of apology for helping to "ratchet up" the incident in which a Cambridge police officer arrested Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates.
- October 2010. Gibbs apologizes for American experiments on Guatemalans in the 1940s. "This is — it’s tragic, and the United States, by all means, apologizes to all those that were impacted by this," Gibbs said at a news conference. "The president is slated to call the leader of Guatemala later today and personally express that apology."
- February 2012. In a letter to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Obama apologizes for the burning of Korans by U.S. troops.
- May 2013. Obama apologizes and says Americans have a right to be angry after revelations that the Internal Revenue Service targeted conservative nonprofits several years previously.
- October 2013. Obama is forced to apologize to German Chancellor Angela Merkel after it is revealed that the NSA was tapping her cellphone.
- November 2013. Obama apologizes to people who had their health insurance canceled. "I am sorry that they are finding themselves in this situation based on assurances they got from me," he said.
- November 2013. The president apologizes to Democrats who have come under fire for supporting Obamacare. "I feel deeply responsible," he said, "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, which is, in this country, as wealthy as we are, everybody should be able to have the security of affordable health care."
- December 2013. Obama apologizes for the Obamacare rollout in broad strokes. "I have acknowledged more than once that we didn’t roll out parts of this law as well as we should have," he said.
The president has also apologized to a number of individuals.
- He apologized for the firing of one-time USDA employee Shirley Sherrod early in his first term.
- In April 2013, Obama apologized to California Attorney General Kamala Harris after commenting on her appearance.
- Last February, he apologized to an art historian after casually insulting art history degrees.
- A few weeks ago, he apologized to an engaged couple for displacing their wedding so he could play golf.
Nor is it only the president who's had to say he's sorry.
- Earnest notes that Vice President Biden called to apologize to the leaders of Turkey and the United Arab Emirates for criticizing their relationship with Syria. Biden, Earnest said, "wishes that he had said it a little bit differently."
- White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer apologized to conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer in July 2012 for misrepresenting the status of a bust of Winston Churchill.
- Last fall, the first lady apologized for mispronouncing the name of Iowa Senate candidate Bruce "Bailey" Braley.
In the grand scheme of things, given how many decisions the president makes on a daily basis and how many decisions are made by representatives of the government he represents, this list is probably relatively short. But it's not the case that Barack Obama hasn't apologized very often in the past. Unless you're only counting times he has explicitly said "I'm sorry."