Obama's Lies Matter, Too

The president pushes back against health care misinformation, then spreads a bunch of his own.


On Wednesday night a broad chunk of the American left, and an overlapping circle of media commentators, got what they'd been aching for since the beginning of August: A presidential bitch-slap of the lying liars who've been, in the words of stereotypical L.A. Times columnist Tim Rutten, "crowding out nearly all substantive and realistic discussion of the critical issues surrounding healthcare reform."

"But know this," President Barack Obama said in one of several such satisfying passages in his health care speech last night. "I will not stand by while the special interests use the same old tactics to keep things exactly the way they are. If you misrepresent what's in the plan, we will call you out."

Salon Editor in Chief Joan Walsh could barely contain herself at this nearly Snoop Doggesque display. "'We will call you out' on lies," she Tweeted. "love it!"

It is telling that so many people who claim to be speaking on the side of Truth, Justice, and the American Way of Journalism have consistently focused their outrage-o-meters at individual townhall attendees, political broadcast entertainers, and the lesser lights of a lame (if resurgent-by-default) opposition party, while letting walk nearly fact-check-free the non-irrelevant occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. If calling out lies and misrepresentations about a significant policy proposal is such pressing journalistic business—and it should be!—you'd think the watchdogs might start with the guy doing the proposing.

The lies last night began in Obama's opening paragraph. "When I spoke here last winter," he began, "credit was frozen. And our financial system was on the verge of collapse." In fact, Obama spoke on Feb. 24, at least six weeks after credit markets began to thaw, and one week after he proclaimed that the passage of his $787 billion stimulus marked "the beginning of the end, the beginning of what we need to do to create jobs for Americans." Obama's speech that day wasn't about staving off a collapse, it was about cleaning up the mess and tackling long-ignored issues. Such as health care.

It's never encouraging when a politician who desperately needs to convince skeptical Americans of his fiscal sobriety starts off by slurring his words. As you might then infer, Obama was just warming up. "Insurance companies," the president announced, "will be required to cover, with no extra charge, routine checkups and preventive care, like mammograms and colonoscopies," in part because such prevention "saves money." Looks like someone forgot to tell the Congressional Budget Office, or other non-White House sources that have analyzed the cost-benefit of prevention.

Again and again last night, the president's numbers didn't add up. "There may be those—particularly the young and healthy—who still want to take the risk and go without coverage," he warned, in a passage defending compulsory insurance. "The problem is, such irresponsible behavior costs all the rest of us money. If there are affordable options and people still don't sign up for health insurance, it means we pay for those people's expensive emergency room visits." No, it means that, on balance, the healthy young don't pay for the unhealthy old. The whole point of forcing vigorous youth to buy insurance is using their cash and good actuarials to bring down the costs of covering the less fortunate.

Such fudges reveal a politician who, for whatever reason, feels like he can't be honest about the real-world costs of expanding health care. "Add it all up, and the plan I'm proposing will cost around $900 billion over ten years," he said, trying hard to sound like those numbers weren't pulled out of Joe Biden's pants, and won't be dwarfed by actual costs within a year or two. "We've estimated that most of this plan can be paid for by finding savings within the existing health care system–a system that is currently full of waste and abuse," he said, making him at least the eighth consecutive president to vaguely promise cutting Medicare "waste" (a promise, it should be added, that could theoretically be fulfilled without drastically overhauling the health care system). Any government-run "public option," he claimed, somehow "won't be" subsidized by taxpayers, but instead would "be self-sufficient and rely on the premiums it collects."

And in a critical, tic-riddled passage that many of even his most ardent supporters probably don't believe, Obama said: "Here's what you need to know. First, I will not sign a plan that adds one dime to our deficits–either now or in the future. Period." In case you couldn't quite read his lips, the president repeated the line for emphasis. Then: "And to prove that I'm serious, there will be a provision in this plan that requires us to come forward with more spending cuts if the savings we promised don't materialize." 

If that "one dime" formulation sounds familiar, that's because Obama made—then almost immediately broke—the same promise regarding taxes on Americans earning less than $250,000 a year. Surely the no-new-deficits pledge is headed for the campaign dustbin faster even then that "net spending cut" we'll never see.

Such bending of the truth-curve matters, I daresay even more than the pressing issue of Marc Ambinder's "umpiric objections" to having the media take a former Republican vice presidential candidate seriously as a health policy commentator. Aside from the disturbing—if-predictable aspect of a commander in chief falling far short of telling the whole truth, there are practical impacts of presidential prevarications that should worry even those who'd rather live in China than in an America without universal coverage.

As the reform supporter and professional skeptic Mickey Kaus noted before the speech, "Obama doesn't need to get 'Republicans on board.' He doesn't need to get Blue Dog Democrats on board. He needs to get voters on board." And if there's any tactic less effective at wooing skeptics than number-fudging insincerity, it's number-fudging insincerity coupled with attacks on the veracity, motivation, and worldview of the skeptics themselves. 

Again last night, Obama invoked the boogeyman of "special interests" who "lie" in order "to keep things exactly the way they are," despite the fact that the special interests in this case are lining up to support the president, and that the critics of his plan tend to bemoan, not defend, the status quo. Opponents of his plan, he said, were "ideological"; Ted Kennedy's support for health care reform, meanwhile, "was born not of some rigid ideology, but of his own experience." Obama said his door was "always open" to those bringing "a serious set of proposals," and he slammed that door shut on any attempts to break the almost universally unloved link between employment and insurance. He yearned to "replace acrimony with civility," then got Democrats stomping on their feet with attacks against the Iraq War and "tax breaks for the wealthy." The center of the debate, as always, was wherever he chose to stand.

And above all else, Obama chose to shadowbox against the more extreme claims of the Sarah Palins of the world, rather than engage the most serious of the skeptics' arguments. No, the administration doesn't "plan to set up panels of bureaucrats with the power to kill off senior citizens," but what about the possibility of government cost-cutters frowning upon expensive hip replacement surgeries for the chronically old? No, the proposal doesn't amount to a complete "government takeover" of health care, but it does continue to expand the government's role (and, promises aside, expenses) in ways that make a deficit-whiplashed nation nervous. No, "no one would be forced to choose" a public option, but what about the argument that incentives would eventually push Americans from private insurance to the public plan?

The result of this challenge-dodging counterpunch was a speech that pleased Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow, but I doubt will sway the many Americans who are both on the fence and off Sarah Palin's e-mail list.

There was one line in the speech last night that pointed to an alternative, more promising future: "My guiding principle," Obama said, "is, and always has been, that consumers do better when there is choice and competition." Unfortunately, the president evinces zero understanding of how increased regulation can reduce consumer choice, even or especially when the government joins the competition. And even if he did see the connection, we'd have good reason to suspect that he wouldn't talk about it openly with the American people. That, ultimately, worries me more than a senior citizen who wants to keep the government out of Medicare.

Matt Welch is editor in chief of
Reason magazine.