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Commentary: Old un-smoking gun raises questions

by on November 21, 2013 10:20 AM

It took a while, but by the end of the first decade of the 21st century all political message makers and strategists had finally heard, and were finally heeding, the voice of the people.

“Please lie to me!” That’s what they all thought they heard you telling pollsters. And that’s why they’ve been spoon-feeding you the stuff they thought you wanted to hear. As in: Yes, you can get what you want — without having to pay for it.

It began when a newly elected President Barack Obama decided to make reforming the health care system his No. 1 achievement. So, the Republican congressional leadership decided to make preventing Obama’s re-election their No. 1 achievement.

Soon America was awash in a tsunami of deceptions, distortions, derisions and flat-out lies. Remember the fear-fomenting from the right that Obama would put your health care fate in the hands of “death panels”? That led to the Obama White House’s launching of a reassurance offensive founded upon this political chestnut: Keep it reassuring and keep it simple.

From the president on down, Democrats began talking in bumper-strips: “If you like your doctor, you will be able to keep your doctor, period. If you like your health care plan, you’ll be able to keep your health care plan, period.”

Politically, it worked. The Affordable Care Act, which Republicans derisively labeled Obamacare, became law and was upheld by the Supreme Court. Team Obama seemed to like the sound of “Obamacare.” But then Obama’s health care website turned out to be a dysfunctional disaster. Then things got worse for Obama. Millions of Americans learned his bumper-strip reassurances were untrue. Insurance companies told people who weren’t part of employer-arranged insurance policies they couldn’t get their minimal policies under the new law. Obama went through weeks of weaseling and back-peddling. But it only made him a late-night comedy punch-line. Finally, inevitably, he admitted his promises were wrong.

Here we must pause to note for the record: So far, there is no smoking gun evidence proving Obama knew the truth but deliberately lied to us.

But I’ve just read a way-too-old-to-still-be-smoking document that leaves no doubt Obama’s top health care experts had to have known their boss wasn’t telling the whole truth every time he assured Americans they could keep their health plans and doctors if they liked them.

On Nov. 30, 2009, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office issued an analysis of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act proposed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. In an analysis that should have been self-evident to any common sense analyst (or, let’s admit it, any thinking journalist) the CBO concluded that “many individuals and families would experience changes in premiums.” These were individuals who are only a small portion of the one-sixth of Americans who are insured individually and not through employer-negotiated policies that would be “grandfathered” and thus permitted under the new law. Some of these were young and healthy individuals whose minimal policies didn’t cover expenses “such as maternity care, prescription drugs, and mental health and substance abuse treatment” and required large out-of-pocket expenses.

These individuals would be offered new policies with increased coverage — which means increased premiums. Good news: more than half of those individuals were in poor or near-poverty categories and will get government subsidies covering more than half their new premiums. So the new policies won’t cost them more money after all. But the few percentage of Americans whose incomes are above the subsidy ceiling but who buy their own insurance will find Obamacare unsubsidized and more expensive.

That’s a truth that should have been self-evident. Yet it wasn’t adequately reported by the news media. Nor was it adequately showcased by Obama’s Republican adversaries. So, while we have no smoking-gun memos telling Obama a policy truth he may not have wanted to hear or use because it was politically inconvenient, we do have our own common sense.

And that tells us the president and his team surely feared this truth was a bit too complicated for bumper-strip comprehension. And mainly, given that opening, Republicans could have demagogued and distorted it until they defeated Obamacare as decisively as they defeated the Clinton White House’s Billarycare.

Now a new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows Obama’s job approval is at his all-time low — 42 percent. And a whopping 57 percent now oppose his health care law. Now Obama is frantically (see also: belatedly) trying to make good on his false promises.

Even though Obamacare will mean improved health care for most Americans, Obama is desperate to hear an encouraging word.

Alas, America’s vox populi has apparently come down with laryngitis.

Martin Schram is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. His column is distributed by McClatchy-Tribune News Service. Email him at
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