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In My Opinion


Obamacare and a president’s promise

Peter St. Onge
Peter St. Onge is The Observer's associate editor.

There’s a question we’re not asking yet about Barack Obama and the Affordable Care Act.

It’s not about how badly the rollout was botched. It’s not about who should take responsibility, or whom should be the fall guy or gal, because all of that will soon be forgotten by those who don’t spend their days tallying political points.

It’s this: Is it OK for a president to lie?

It’s becoming harder to believe that didn’t happen with this president and his health care law. We all know the quote by now. In 2009, as the Affordable Care Act was being written, Obama told the American Medical Association: “If you like your health care plan, you’ll be able to keep your health care plan, period.” A year later, he reiterated: “If you like your insurance plan, you will keep it. No one will be able to take that away from you.”

But that wasn’t true. And he knew it. So did a handful of Republicans and journalists who said then that the president couldn’t possibly keep his promise. The Affordable Care Act did allow for some insurance plans to be grandfathered, but the law also required that medical coverage be more robust than the plans many people held. Cancellations were inevitable. Millions of them.

But Obama didn’t equivocate. He didn’t say, “Well, I’m not talking about all Americans…”

“Period,” he said.

Now the inevitable has arrived. Americans with individual insurance policies are getting cancellations in the mail. The media are widely reporting what too few did four years ago. Republicans are pouncing with Joe Wilson-like fury.

And now, the president and his supporters are trying to deflect the hard truth with soft logic:

“Those Americans had substandard plans...”

Doesn’t matter.

“Most will be able to get subsidies for their new, improved plans…”

Also doesn’t matter.

“The cancellations affect only a small number of people…”

Maybe so (or maybe not, according to some estimates). But that doesn’t absolve the deception.

There’s another rationalization, of course, although it’s one you’ll never hear from the president: He couldn’t tell the truth about Obamacare. If he had – if he’d said “millions of you will have to buy new plans, but they’ll be better plans” – the Affordable Care Act would have died on the table, a victim of severe anxiety.

That’s why many are perfectly content with Obama’s choice. A greater good was accomplished, which is all that ultimately will matter. And besides, don’t we often trust our leaders to be the judge of what’s best for all?

But Americans have an implicit pact with the people who represent us. Unless national security is involved, we expect to have a voice in their deliberations, and that voice is neutered when it’s not fully informed. That was the result of the president’s deception, and it’s why Republicans are pivoting from the botched Obamacare rollout to the broken Obamacare promise. Americans, they know, have less tolerance for dishonesty than incompetence.

Obama, not surprisingly, doubled down last week, blaming the media for “misleading” people by not reporting on the better deal many Americans are getting. Did you expect, “Sorry about that, but I had to fib”?

That’s the calculation the president faced four years ago when deciding what we should know. Should he jeopardize a worthy law – which it is, by the way – by acknowledging its shortcomings up front? Or should he risk a political hit after Obamacare is the law of the land?

But in choosing the latter, he forgot a more basic truth: It should have been our decision, not his.

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