In Miami on Thursday afternoon, President Obama gave a speech ostensibly updating the American people on the status of his health-care law. But beneath the wonky explanations lay several dark—one might even call them intolerant—undercurrents.
As much as Donald Trump’s recent comments suggesting he won’t accept the results of November’s election violate democratic norms, President Obama’s demeanor provides a more subtle, but perhaps no less insidious, threat to democratic pluralism and representative government.
Regarding his eponymous law, President Obama thinks only policy outcomes to his liking warrant an end to debate, will only acknowledge ideas and philosophies consonant with his own, and refuses to acknowledge the extent of the deception needed to pass the measure in the first place.
Granted, the president didn’t follow Trump’s (bad) example in saying he would only accept the election results “if I win.” But about the policy consequences arising from said elections, the president’s attitude essentially echoes Trump’s: The outcomes only matter if he wins.
‘Going Back’ to HillaryCare
As his is wont, the president on Thursday cited multiple votes on repeal bills in Congress, and questioned why Republicans wouldn’t want to “go back” to the days before Obamacare. But to this historian, it’s worth taking at least minute to do just that.
A certain former secretary of State often likes to point out that “it was called Hillarycare before it was called Obamacare.” She’s right, of course. It was called Hillarycare—and the voters overwhelmingly rejected it, handing control of both chambers of Congress to Republicans for the first time in 40 years. Before that, voters and legislators rejected universal coverage schemes under presidents Nixon, Truman, and both presidents Roosevelt, to name but a few.
Viewed from this prism, why did Democrats in 2009 “go back” to try and enact Hillarycare after voters soundly rejected it—not just during the Clinton administration, but time after time after time over a span of nearly a century? Because, for good or for ill, they believed in the objective of universal coverage, and they would not take repeated “nos” from the voters for an answer.
Why then should those concerned about the impact of Obamacare (or for that matter, any program this president promotes) not demonstrate the same level of passion and sustained enthusiasm to obtain their objectives? The answer is simple: They absolutely should—at least, if you believe in democracy. But to judge from his speech, President Obama apparently places a higher priority on denigrating those who would undermine his agenda.
Granted, if you believe government only exists to provide an ever-larger amount of largesse to individuals—a boundless array of programs, generating an ever-growing level of federal munificence—you might think the only outcomes that matter are ones that increase government’s scope and reach. But if you believe that lawmakers, in their rush to obtain short-term political advantage, might be spending their way into unsustainable levels of debt for future generations, you probably take issue with the president’s one-sided perspective.
No One Can Have Any Different Goals than Mine
Likewise, the president refuses to acknowledge that conservatives have any “serious alternatives” to the law. As someone who helped draft not one, but two, such alternatives, I can categorically call that claim false. President Obama likely knows such alternatives exist, but because they disagree with his objectives, he refuses to acknowledge them.
There’s an ironic contradiction between the president’s refusal to acknowledge conservative alternatives to Obamacare and his self-proclaimed willingness to accept ideas from any quarter. In his speech Thursday, the president joked that he would even change the name of Obamacare to “Reagancare” or “Paul Ryancare” if Republicans would agree to improve the measure.
But there’s a not-insignificant catch: President Obama will discuss ideas from anyone, but only if they accomplish his objectives. If the ideas don’t synch up with his objectives—if he doesn’t win on the policy, to echo Trump—then to the president, those ideas simply don’t exist.
The president once again talked about Obamacare’s program of state waivers, which he claimed would provide states flexibility. But as I have previously noted, the law permits states to waive some of the law’s requirements only if they agree to accomplish the law’s objectives. States can impose more mandates and regulations, and cover more people, but not fewer.
Conservatives who wish to emphasize solutions that focus on lowering health-care costs over expanding coverage will find little comfort from the law’s waivers—and little acknowledgement from this president.
Win at All Costs?
One might not recognize it at first glance, but the president’s speech implicitly admitted many of the deceptions needed to pass Obamacare in the first place. In calling the law a “starter home,” and calling for increased subsidies, he conceded that his remarks to Congress stating “the plan I’m proposing will cost around $900 billion” amounted to a bait-and-switch. Ditto his claims that premiums are rising at their slowest rate, far from the $2,500 per family premium reduction he promised in 2008.
But to President Obama, winning his policy objectives is all that matters. Just as with Trump’s comments on the election in November, the only outcomes that matter to President Obama—and the only ideas he will acknowledge—are those in agreement with him. Regardless of whether you believe Obamacare should be preserved, improved, or repealed, that’s bad for democracy.