At the end of the day, the root of President Barack Obama’s mendacity on Obamacare was simple: He didn’t dare tell people how the law would work. He couldn’t tell people how the law would work.
Forthrightness was the enemy. It served no useful purpose and could only bring peril, and potentially defeat. It had to be banished. Instead, President Obama made the sale on the basis of dubious blandishments and outright deceptions.
If this is the only way to pass your signature initiative — and a decades-long goal of your party —it ought to give you pause. But Obama was a natural at delivering sweeping and sincere-seeming assurances that just weren’t true. This kind of thing is his metier.
If he were awoken at 3 a.m. and told that he had to make the case for nationalizing the banks by denying he was nationalizing the banks, he would do an entirely creditable job of it, even without a teleprompter. The salesmanship for Obamacare represents in microcosm the larger Obama political project, which has always depended on throwing a reassuring skein of moderation on top of left-wing ideological aims.
All politicians are prone to shaving the truth, giving themselves the benefit of the doubt and trying to appear more reasonable than they are. Obama has made it an art form. Bad faith is one of his signal strengths as a politician, and it makes him one of the greatest frontmen progressivism has ever had.
He will never admit his deep bias toward the growth of the federal government, or that he doesn’t care that much if Iran gets the bomb, or that he is liquidating the American leadership role in the Middle East. No, no — he is just trying to make government work, giving diplomacy a chance and pivoting to Asia, respectively.
In this vein, the things that the president couldn’t say about Obamacare keep mounting. The New York Times reported the other day on how the word “redistribution,” which aptly describes the law’s intent and effect, is anathema.
“These days the word is particularly toxic at the White House,” according to the paper, “where it has been hidden away to make the Affordable Care Act more palatable to the public and less a target for Republicans, who have long accused Democrats of seeking ‘socialized medicine.’ But the redistribution of wealth has always been a central feature of the law and lies at the heart of the insurance market disruptions driving political attacks this fall.”
Heaven forbid that the president tell people that. The Times notes that the last time the president mentioned redistribution, it was — of course — to say that he wanted nothing to do with it.
The president styles himself a committed pragmatist. At a fundraiser the other day, he averred, “I’m not a particularly ideological person.” He just happened to risk Democratic control of Congress to advance the cause of nationalized health insurance. And happened to insist on the left-most plausible version of the law. And happened to defend it with every power at his disposal.
In private, the president admits that he has kept his true ideological self carefully under wraps. According to the authors of “Double Down,” Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, Obama brought up climate change in a political strategy meeting in 2011 as an example of his undue caution. “Maybe I should just come out and say what I really feel about this,” he said. “Maybe I should just go out and say what I think about everything.”
As a crazy thought experiment, his aides let him dabble with heartfelt sincerity. To the next meeting he brought a list of causes dear to him, all liberal cliches: climate change, immigration reform, poverty, Israeli-Palestinian peace, closing Gitmo, and gay marriage. Only gay marriage surfaced in the presidential campaign because he couldn’t bear any longer to hide what he really thought on the issue.
He knew the danger of too much forthrightness.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.