Obama and the L-Word

The president's habit of telling untruths


Here's how predictable the president's slippery relationship with the truth has become: Hours before the State of the Union address, Washington Examiner reporter Timothy P. Carney posted a "pre-emptive fact check" that, among other things, prebutted any presidential claim to have "stopped the revolving door between government and corporate lobbying." As it happened, that night Barack Obama made an even bolder (read: less truthful) claim: that "we've excluded lobbyists from policymaking jobs."

In fact, more than 40 former lobbyists work in the administration, including such policy makers as Deputy Defense Secretary William J. Lynn (who was lobbying for Raytheon as recently as 2008), Office of the First Lady Director of Policy and Projects Jocelyn Frye (National Partnership for Women and Families), White House Director of Intergovernmental Affairs Cecilia Muñoz (National Council of La Raza), and Treasury Secretary Chief of Staff Mark Patterson (Goldman Sachs). 

When Carney confronted a White House spokeswoman with the falsehood, she conceded nothing. "As the President said," she wrote, "we have turned away lobbyists for many, many positions." Just not all of them. 

As such defiance suggests, this was no isolated slip of the tongue. The president, who promised in both word and style to usher in a "new era" of Washington "responsibility," routinely says things that aren't true and supports initiatives that break campaign promises. When called on it, he mostly keeps digging. And when obliged to explain why American voters are turning so sharply away from his party and his policies, Obama pins the blame not on his own deviations from verity but on his failure to "explain" things "more clearly to the American people."

Take the issue he has explained more than any other: health care. In the State of the Union address, Obama claimed that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) had estimated that "our approach" to health care reform "would bring down the deficit by as much as $1 trillion over the next two decades." This is, strictly speaking, not true. The Democrats' "approach" to health care reform includes a permanent change to the Medicare reimbursement rates for doctors, colloquially known as the "doc fix." The CBO estimated that the doc fix, when combined with the health care reform legislative package, actually "would increase the budget deficit in 2019 by $23 billion relative to current law, an increment that would grow in subsequent years." This is why House Democrats stripped out the doc fix from the health care bill, and passed it separately; it made the CBO scores look bad, making it harder for the president to present bogus claims about deficit neutrality.

That bit of mendacity only scratches the surface of how Congress and the administration gamed the system to produce nice-looking numbers. The CBO, by its own rules, has to take Congress at its word when a piece of legislation promises unspecified future "cuts" in spending, even though an overwhelming majority of promised future cuts never come to pass (a fact that the CBO itself has repeatedly warned in supplementary comments). The Senate promised more than $300 billion in such cuts. Furthermore, the CBO scores bills in 10-year windows. So the Senate delayed more than 99 percent of the reform package's spending until 2014, thus allowing the decade of 2010–2019 to clock in under the magic $1 trillion number. Add to all that chicanery the fact that every major health care entitlement expansion in U.S. history has vastly exceeded initial cost projections, and you have ample reasons for why Americans believed, by a margin of more than 3 to 1, that health care reform would exacerbate rather than improve the deficit.

Even when addressing black-andwhite examples of broken promises —such as his vow to televise each and every bit of health care legislative negotiations on C-SPAN—Obama can't quite resist the temptation to plead gray. When confronted directly on the broken C-SPAN pledge during a January meeting with GOP lawmakers, the president said: "Look, the truth of the matter is that if you look at the health care process—just over the course of the year—overwhelmingly the majority of it actually was on C-SPAN, because it was taking place in congressional hearings in which you guys were participating."

Presidential defiance, dissembling, and disinformation are nothing new, even if such political perennials are more disappointing coming from someone who still boasts (as he did in the State of the Union address) of "telling hard truths" to the American people and "doing what's best for the next generation." Voters pretty much knew that Bill Clinton was a slime ball when they sent him to the White House; Barack Obama held out the promise of being more dignified.

The difference between these two most recent Democratic presidents, substantial to begin with (especially in the crucial area of economic policy), may come into sharper relief in 2010. Clinton's reptilian relationship with the truth, suffused as it always has been with a catch-me-if-you-can sense of personal preservation, actually turned out to have some uses for the nation when he changed course after the 1994 Republican revolution and began co-opting some of the limited-government policies proposed by his opponents. It's easier for a chameleon to change his spots.

Obama's dishonesty, by contrast, seems to spring from a different place. As a man who has spent most of his career wowing people with his words and very little of it converting those words into deeds, he has an activist's gap between rhetoric and reality and a radio broadcaster's promiscuous carelessness with cutting rhetorical corners. Sure, it's not technically true that the administration's day-one lobbying reforms served "to get rid of the influence of…special interests," as he claimed in a January radio address (to the contrary: federal lobbying in 2009 set an all-time record), but it's easy to imagine that the president feels his combination of tighter employment restrictions for ex-lobbyists and stricter disclosure requirements for current ones is, in the context of the Manichean fight between "the people" and "special interests," good enough for government work. The perfect shouldn't be the enemy of the good, and the critics who complain are just opportunistic literalists grasping for any club to beat back the march of progress. No need to give them an inch.

But there's a less charitable explanation too. During the president's nonstop gabfests before, during, and after the State of the Union speech, he kept repeating the fiction that the medical industry's "special interests" were significantly to blame for scotching his health care legislation. In fact, the administration and Congress negotiated with those interests every step of the way, receiving crucial buy-in and millions in campaign contributions. Pro-reform lobbyists outspent anti-reform lobbyists on advertising by a factor of 5 to 1. There's a three-letter word for blaming the defeat of his bill on health care lobbyists, and it rhymes with pie.

And yet it smacks of something worse still. When a politician cannot fathom opposition to his policies except as the manifestation of wicked manipulation by bad guys, remediable only by more thorough "explanations" from the good guys, it indicates an unseemly paternalism. And if he cannot take the hint that Bush-Obama bailout-and-spend economics are deeply and increasingly unpopular, that indicates something immovable about his core economic ideology. With those two factors as backdrop, it's hard to say which would be worse: if the president didn't really believe what he said, or if he did.

Matt Welch (matt.welch@reason.com) is editor in chief of reason.