Among the Cynics

When it comes to health care reform, Obama doesn't believe reasonable people can disagree


It's funny—I don't feel like a fearmongering naysayer. And I haven't gotten a check from a health insurance lobbyist in ages. Actually, come to think of it, I've never gotten a check from the insurance lobby.

But Obama says that I am, along with (pick your poll) 30 to 60 percent of Americans who are not on board with massive government intervention in one of the biggest and fastest growing sectors of our economy. So it must be true.

I do have all the hallmarks of the cynic. "In the coming weeks, the cynics and the naysayers will continue to exploit fear and concerns for political gain," President Barack Obama wrote in The New York Times on Sunday, after gazing into the near future of the health care debate and seeing a dystopia full of "scare tactics." And it's true. I am "exploiting" "concerns." By expressing them. In print. In conversation. My 30 to 60 percent fearmongering brethren and I, cynics that we are, just keep having concerns.

We fearmongers and our "concerns" wield an unholy power over the political process. How else to explain what happened? A plan—noble in reason, infinite in faculties, in form admirable—was presented to the American people. The obvious genius of the plan failed to carry it through intact. As more details were revealed, more and more people got antsy about the whole endeavor. They mentioned their concerns to their congressmen, sometimes loudly. Congress got cold feet, and now everyone is sitting in time out, thinking about what they did wrong.

When Obama, the man of hope, tells this story, it sounds like a failure of the democratic process, corrupted by special interests who somehow forced all those people to holler at town meetings and forced me to write this article. Again, though, without the actual writing of checks. But someone of a non-cynical nature might equally see this story as a great success of participatory democracy, with representatives accountable to the people.

Obama saw the health care cynics coming a mile away. Back in the misty days of January 2007, he warned the Democratic National Committee about us. The "cynics," he predicted, would fight health care reform. "With such cynicism, government doesn't become a force of good, a means of giving people the opportunity to lead better lives; it just becomes an obstacle for people to get rid of. Too often, this cynicism makes us afraid to say what we believe. It makes us fearful. We don't trust the truth." He blended together his own health care plan, government as a force for good, and truth into a delicious rhetorical smoothie, and they ate it up.

But times have changed and on Saturday, in Grand Junction, Colorado, Obama indulged in a little psychologizing of the now-ascendant Other. He said he understood "why people are nervous" but then he clarified: "Whenever America has set about solving our toughest problems, there have been those who have sought to preserve the status quo. And these struggles have always boiled down to a contest between hope and fear." The people who are nervous are just timid, more susceptible than average to the "special interests" do things like "use their influence" to get their "political allies to scare the American people." And they are contagious, passing on the fear themselves.

Sometimes it seems that Obama ascribes opposition to his agenda to a simple failure of intelligence, or perhaps perception. "What the cynics fail to understand," said the brand spanking new president on inauguration day, "is that the ground has shifted beneath them—that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply."

Or perhaps people just have the facts wrong. If they weren't blinded by falsehood, surely they would hop right on board. On Thursday, this exchange between White House press secretary Robert Gibbs and ABC's Jake Tapper entertained the White House press corps for a couple of minutes. After squabbling over polls, (which might or might not show that more Americans disapprove of the president's handling of health care reform than approve, but that either way an awful lot of people didn't dig the plan) it finally got down to this:

TAPPER:  …why are they not with the president?

GIBBS:  Look, I think part of it is some of these misconceptions.

Everyone needs someone to mischaracterize while engaging in political battle—remember all those Islamists who "hate our freedoms"? But the strangest thing about Obama's cynics-and-naysayers gambit is that it's no gambit at all. Every single time Obama implies (or says outright) that the people who disagree with him are confused, that they aren't listening properly to what he is saying, they they are in the thrall of liars, or that they are fearful or mean-spirited—he's doing it in good faith.

Obama's path is so clearly illuminated by the light of his own reason, he simply can't entertain another possible way of being, a different set of beliefs, held by an intelligent person who is well-informed and well-intentioned—or so his language about cynicism, fear, and lies strongly implies. His assumption of bad faith or idiocy on the part of his opponents is done, it seems, with a pure heart.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is a senior editor at Reason magazine.