Jeff Jacoby

Q: When it comes to a government overhaul of health care, what is the difference between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney?

A: Obama was against an individual insurance mandate before he was for it. Romney was for the mandate before he was against it.

Actually, that's not precisely accurate. The real difference is that Obama acknowledges reversing his position, while Romney seems to be trying to have it both ways.

As a candidate for president in 2008, then-Senator Obama blasted Hillary Clinton's health-care plan because, as one of his campaign ads put it, "It forces everyone to buy insurance, even if you can't afford it, and you pay a penalty if you don't."

But within six months of being sworn in as president, Obama had embraced a mandate. Asked in an interview with CBS whether "each individual American should be required to have health insurance," Obama owned up to his 180-degree shift:

"I have come to that conclusion," Obama said. "During the campaign I was opposed to this idea [but] I am now in favor of some sort of individual mandate as long as there's a hardship exemption."

Compelling nearly everyone to obtain health insurance (or pay a stiff penalty for failing to do so) is the heart of ObamaCare, the linchpin without which the whole scheme falls apart. That's why US District Judge Henry Hudson's ruling last week that the individual mandate is unconstitutional -- and that allowing the federal government to force citizens to buy a private product would "invite unbridled exercise of federal police powers" -- was so significant. The White House immediately fired back -- "We disagree with the ruling," the president's spokesman said. In a Washington Post column the next day, Attorney General Eric Holder and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius extolled ObamaCare's "individual responsibility provision," and insisted that it would be upheld on appeal.

That euphemism for mandating the purchase of health insurance -- "individual responsibility provision" -- may sound familiar to Massachusetts ears. It is essentially the same term Romney used in selling his own health-care overhaul, which also requires everyone to buy health coverage and penalizes those who don't.


Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby is an Op-Ed writer for the Boston Globe, a radio political commentator, and a contributing columnist for Townhall.com.