Americans are sufficiently cynical of politicians that it's almost axiomatic that dishonesty comes as part of the job, but that doesn't make outright lies cost-free.
We have come a long way from the apocryphal story of George Washington and the cherry tree to "I am not a crook," "Read my lips," and to the disputes over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. While voters may resign themselves to a level of spin from their elected officials, repeated outright lies create an enormous risk for politicians, especially self-professed agents of change.
Dishonesty and credibility were issues raised repeatedly by Democrats in the 2004 and 2008 presidential campaigns. The claim that George W. Bush lied us into a war in Iraq through the use of bad intelligence haunted Republicans, who argued that acting in good faith on bad intelligence was not the same as lying to Americans.
However, that argument — while true, and with reminders that Bush had other arguments for ending the 12-year cease-fire against Saddam Hussein — fed into a larger narrative by 2008 of incompetence at the White House.
That narrative had already grown toxic by 2006, fueled by the Bush administration’s bungled response to Hurricane Katrina and the eruption of violence in Iraq. It resulted in a Democratic rout of Republicans in the midterms and all but guaranteed the Democrats another sweep in 2008 after the economic meltdown destroyed what was left of Bush’s credibility.
It was in that environment that Barack Obama surged from his status as a backbencher to winning the Democratic nomination by promising “hope and change.” That slogan aimed specifically at both the Bush administration, whose integrity Obama explicitly and repeatedly attacked, and the legacy of the Clintons, which Obama attacked more obliquely.
People had not forgotten the perjury of Bill Clinton, even if they didn’t believe it to be a reason to remove him from office. They had not forgotten the outright lie Clinton told Americans in the scandal that precipitated it about not having sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. Obama promised a clean start for clean government, pledging “the most transparent administration ever.”
That wasn’t Barack Obama’s only promise, though. During the course of that campaign, Obama pledged a comprehensive reform of the health-care system, one that would “bend the cost curve downward” while expanding insurance coverage to all Americans. When his opponents repeatedly pointed out that federal control of the health insurance market would create higher costs and push millions of Americans out of their current plans, Obama repeatedly reassured voters that “if you like your plan, you can keep your plan.”
Obama made that promise over and over again, not just through the 2008 campaign but also throughout the legislative fight to pass the Affordable Care Act, and then again repeatedly during the 2012 presidential campaign when Mitt Romney warned voters that insurers would have to cancel many plans on the individual market.
That promise got exposed as false this month. Thanks to the mandates in the ACA, insurers had to cancel many of their individual-market policies to replace them with ACA-compliant plans. The letters hit mailboxes this month informing policyholders that they couldn’t keep their plans after all — and there weren’t just a few of these letters, either. Over 800,000 will go to Californians alone by the end of the year, according to Covered California’s executive director. CBS News reported that two million Americans had already lost their current plans, and that the number could skyrocket from there.
This was no error or a falsehood innocently offered once by Obama based on faulty data. As early as the first days after the bill’s passage, the White House knew that most individuals buying insurance would have to lose their insurance and move to more comprehensive coverage whether they wanted or needed it or not.
NBC News reported this week that HHS estimated in July 2010 that “40 to 67 percent” of the 17 million insured through the individual markets would not keep their current policies, and that was before HHS restricted their grandfathering rules to make that situation worse. Yet Obama continued to insist repeatedly for more than three years that anyone who liked their plan could keep it, and scolded Romney for suggesting otherwise as a kind of fear monger holding back change.
Even after the lie was exposed, the White House continued to push the falsehood this week by parsing language so sharply that it can only be called Clintonian. Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett spent two days claiming that insurers were to blame essentially for complying with the coverage mandates in Obamacare.
Press Secretary Jay Carney made the same argument a day later claiming that the grandfathering rule was intended to prevent that — even though HHS estimated three years ago that its changes to the grandfathering rule would kick two-thirds or more out of their current plans.
Other Obama allies tried to float the same line, or to argue that only fools would have been suckered by this promise in the first place. Some argued that Americans were just being "transitioned" to better plans, not losing the plans they would want to keep, which Charles Krauthammer rightly described as the "you're too stupid to know what's best for you" argument.
Steny Hoyer (D-MD), however, admitted that Democrats knew all along that the promise wasn't "precise enough." That will come as news to millions of Americans who heard Obama and his fellow Democrats repeat it ad infinitum for the last five years, even though for the last three years Hoyer and his fellow Democrats knew it wasn't "precise enough." It won’t do anything to alleviate the Democrats’ credibility crisis, either.
Coincidentally, the White House got caught in another lie the same week. Leaks from Edward Snowden exposed NSA surveillance on dozens of foreign leaders, including heads of state of our allies in Germany, France, and Spain. The White House claimed that Barack Obama and his team had no knowledge of that surveillance, but angry officials in the U.S. intelligence service told The Los Angeles Times that the surveillance was repeatedly approved by the White House and State Department.
"Certainly the National Security Council and senior people across the intelligence community knew exactly what was going on, and to suggest otherwise is ridiculous,” one official told The Times, and another noted that the surveillance had been a regular part of routine briefings at the White House.
Americans might be more willing to forgive the latter lie as part of statecraft and "plausible deniability." Obama has to work one-on-one with these leaders, and admitting knowledge will make that more difficult to the detriment of American interests.
Even with suspicion running high over the NSA's activities regarding domestic surveillance, relatively few think the US should stop collecting intelligence at all, even at the expense of allies. The programs that collected intelligence on Angela Merkel and other foreign leaders began well before Obama took office, and a face-saving dodge would be understandable in these circumstances, if no less embarrassing.
That won't hold on Obamacare, however, especially with the litany of buck-passing disclaimers issued by Obama and his team over the other debacles in the Obamacare rollout. The Affordable Care Act started with Obama, was forced through Congress over the objections of a united Republican minority, and has been the central project of Obama's presidency.
The president was elected and then re-elected to office on the basis of this particular claim, as well as his insistence that voters could trust his word. With the ACA exchanges a disaster and the promise of honesty and expertise demolished, what else is left for Obama to move his agenda forward?
Obama won office by amplifying voter disdain for political dishonesty and incompetence. He may spend the next three years being hoisted by his own petard as the lamest of lame ducks.