If Obama Broke His Health Care Promise, Does That Tell Us Anything Useful About Anything?

Let us stipulate, for the sake of argument, that President Obama has broken his promise that “if you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan.” I actually think the accusation is highly contestable on its merits, but whatever. Let’s roll with it. What I want to know is: what, in practical terms, I should take away from this fact?

And I ask in earnest! Because Obama’s critics sure seem to think it’s important. But so far they seem like the dog that caught the proverbial car with this talking point — now that they’ve landed it, they don’t know what to do with it.

"You know what I am? I'm a dog chasing cars. I wouldn't know what to do with one if I caught it! I just do things."

“I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it! I just do things.”

The most obvious implication they’re pushing is that this invalidates the law: as Ben Domenech put it at a recent Wonkblog debate, whether Obamacare succeeds or fails should be judged by whether it lives up to the White House’s promises.

But this is an obviously stupid argument. First off, Obama is not my Dear Leader or anyone else’s. He’s just some dude I voted for. We’re all perfectly capable of forming our own opinions on a policy and coming up with our own metrics. I’m not obligated to adopt his. And as a matter of common-sense, it seems to me most voters will judge the law on whether it makes American lives better off on the whole, not whether it matches up with a few political talking points the vast majority of them weren’t paying attention to anyway.

Tim Carney, however, does a better job with two distinct takeaways:

1) Never trust Obama again.

I can’t really say I disagree, though I don’t share the sentiment. I’m deeply cynical and utilitarian about this stuff — politicians are function algorithms, whose behavior is determined by self-interest and the environment of political forces they encounter. I vote for them accordingly, looking for the one that I think will best advanced my preferred policies and values given their nature and circumstance. I gauge the likelihood they’ll keep their promises by the same measure. (As such, Obama’s done a good job of keeping his promises to me, since I’m a lefty-liberal, and am smack-dab in the middle of the political coalition that most affects Obama’s fortunes.) In short, trust doesn’t really enter into it for me, except at the margins.

Carney’s point is certainly relevant to, say, conservative voters who are curious about immigration reform. If the final bill’s concession to conservatives is increased border security, and that increase is written in the legislation such that it relies heavily on executive discretion, then yeah, they should be worried Obama will welch. But really, that would be just as true before the current Obamacare brouhaha, because that’s the nature of politics. It’s also a good reason to leave the executive as little discretion as possible in a law’s language, which is how we ought to be doing things anyway.

I also think the decisiveness and gravity with which Carney renders this judgment is uncalled for. As I said, the charge is contestable, even from his framework. Obama’s promise has held true for everyone on Medicare, Medicaid, and the vast majority of employer-provided plans. That’s most Americans right there.  The Congressional Budget Office projected that 8 million Americans would lose their current coverage. By my lights, when you make a promise to 300 million-odd people, keeping it for 97 percent of them is doing pretty well. It’s also arguable the White House was honest if cagey at the time that the grandfathered plans wouldn’t last.

The most you could say, I think, is that this is one data point in the case you shouldn’t trust Obama, and a relatively mixed one at that.

2) Loosen the rules that are outlawing insurance plans.

As Carney says, “Why should it be illegal for me to buy a plan that doesn’t cover mental health or contraception? Why should it be illegal for my neighbors to buy a plan that doesn’t cover maternity or prescription drugs? Why should a $5,000-in-network out-of-pocket maximum combined with a $10,000 out-of-network max be outlawed?” Those are all fair questions! And it’s absolutely true that loosening Obamacare’s rules about how coverage can be constructed and what benefits must be included would cut down on the amount of plan cancelations.

But this is a debate over an a priori policy preference. We’d still be having it, in exactly this same form, even if Obama had been totally up front from the beginning that some plans would get nixed. And if you do think tall those practices should be outlawed, then saying the plan cancellations are merely “transitions” is a perfectly valid argument.

It’s worth noting that most conservative health wonks want to equalize the tax treatment of employer-provided plans and individual ones. Now that would lead to some serious upheaval in what coverage is currently available, and who gets to keep what. So the mere fact of changing plans can’t be taken as evidence that a particular policy is bad.

Again, I don’t see how Obama’s failure to keep his promise illuminates anything here. For myself, I’m sympathetic to the idea that Obamacare’s rules on this score shouldn’t be so demanding. But I’m also firmly in agreement with Josh Barro and Austin Frakt that our current health care system is a mess, that changing it into something better will inevitably lead to lots of people losing what they now have, so Obama’s promise is something that shouldn’t be kept because doing so would be bad policy.

We should decide whether the essential health benefit requirements are a good idea or a bad idea, then alter or not alter the law accordingly. Obama’s personal virtue has nothing to do with it. And if those rules are a good idea, we certainly should’t get rid of them anyway just to bring the law into line with the President’s previous sales pitch.

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