You lie? No. Barack Obama doesn't lie. He's too subtle for that. He ... well, you judge.
Herewith three examples within a single speech -- the now-famous Obama-Wilson "you lie" address to Congress on health care -- of Obama's relationship with truth.
(1) "I will not sign (a plan)," he solemnly pledged, "if it adds one dime to the deficit, now or in the future. Period."
Wonderful. The president seems serious, veto-ready, determined to hold the line. Until, notes Harvard economist Greg Mankiw, you get to Obama's very next sentence: "And to prove that I'm serious, there will be a provision in this plan that requires us to come forward with more spending cuts if the savings we promised don't materialize."
This apparent strengthening of the pledge brilliantly and deceptively undermines it. What Obama suggests is that his plan will require mandatory spending cuts if the current rosy projections prove false. But there's absolutely nothing automatic about such cuts. Every Congress is sovereign. Nothing enacted today will force a future Congress or a future president to make any cuts in any spending, mandatory or not.
Just look at the supposedly automatic Medicare cuts contained in the Sustainable Growth Rate formula enacted to constrain out-of-control Medicare spending. Every year since 2003, Congress has waived the cuts.
Mankiw puts the Obama bait-and-switch in plain language. "Translation: I promise to fix the problem. And if I do not fix the problem now, I will fix it later, or some future president will, after I am long gone. I promise he will. Absolutely, positively, I am committed to that future president fixing the problem. You can count on it. Would I lie to you?"
(2) And then there's the famous contretemps about health insurance for illegal immigrants. Obama said they would not be insured. Well, all four committee-passed bills in Congress allow illegal immigrants to take part in the proposed Health Insurance Exchange.
But more importantly, the problem is that laws are not self-enforcing. If they were, we'd have no illegal immigrants because, as I understand it, it's illegal to enter the United States illegally. We have laws against burglary, too. But we also provide for cops and jails on the assumption that most burglars don't voluntarily turn themselves in.
When Republicans proposed requiring proof of citizenship, the Democrats twice voted that down in committee. Indeed, after Rep. Joe Wilson's "You lie!" shout-out, the Senate Finance Committee revisited the language of its bill to prevent illegal immigrants from getting any federal benefits. Why would the Finance Committee fix a nonexistent problem?
(3) Obama said he would largely solve the insoluble cost problem of Obamacare by eliminating "hundreds of billions of dollars in waste and fraud" from Medicare.
That's not a lie. That's not even deception. That's just an insult to our intelligence. Waste, fraud and abuse -- Meg Greenfield once called this phrase "the dread big three" -- as the all-purpose piggy bank for budget savings has been a joke since Jimmy Carter first used it in 1977.
Moreover, if half a trillion is waiting to be squeezed painlessly out of Medicare, why wait for health care reform? If, as Obama repeatedly insists, Medicare overspending is breaking the budget, why hasn't he gotten started on the painless billions in "waste and fraud" savings?
Obama doesn't lie. He merely elides, gliding from one dubious assertion to another. This has been the story throughout his whole health care crusade. Its original premise was that our current financial crisis was rooted in neglect of three things -- energy, education and health care. That transparent attempt to exploit Emanuel's Law -- a crisis is a terrible thing to waste -- failed for health care because no one is stupid enough to believe that the 2008 financial collapse was caused by a lack of universal health care.
So on to the next gambit: selling health care reform as a cure for the deficit. When that was exploded by the Congressional Budget Office's demonstration of staggering Obamacare deficits, Obama tried a new tack: selling his plan as revenue-neutral insurance reform -- until the revenue neutrality is exposed as phony future cuts and chimerical waste and fraud.
Obama doesn't lie. He implies, he misdirects, he misleads -- so fluidly and incessantly that he risks transmuting eloquence into mere slickness.
Slickness wasn't fatal to "Slick Willie" Clinton because he possessed a winning, near irresistible charm. Obama's persona is more cool, distant, imperial. The charming scoundrel can get away with endless deception; the righteous redeemer cannot.
Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.
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