The Obama Watch

WBHO and WBHO FM in the Nation’s Capital

If the president wants to be believed, he could begin by giving up his Saturday disc jockey gig.

By 3.8.10

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It may not be news that politicians dissemble. But that's no reason not to care about what a president says. Let us, therefore, unpack last Saturday's presidential radio address.

President Obama said he had met with some of the insurance companies two days earlier and said that "they couldn't give me a straight answer as to why they keep arbitrarily and massively raising premiums -- by as much as 60 percent in states like Illinois."

Sixty percent! Could that be true? Actually it's not (see below), but let us examine the president's rhetoric first, because a clever rhetorician can, sometimes, hide his dissembling.

What does "states like Illinois" mean? Are there states like Illinois? Is Alaska like Illinois? Rhode Island? Michigan? Could President Obama have meant that there are other states in which insurance companies have also raised premiums by as much as 60 percent? Please. You know he didn't mean that, because if he had, he wouldn't have missed the chance to name them.

The proper formulation for what he seemed to be saying would have been that insurance companies had raised premiums "by as much as 60 percent in a number of states, including Illinois." His use of "like" was -- sort of -- shorthand for "including."

But "including" is also commonly misused (mistakenly or deliberately) to imply that there are more items on a list than those named, as when a person with two degrees says, "I have a number of academic degrees, including a B.A. and a Ph.D."

You could, properly, say "a number of scandals engulfed the Clinton Administration, including Whitewater, Troopergate, Travelgate, and Monicagate." You would not say (I hope), "Goldilocks had a run-in with some bears, including the Papa Bear, the Mama Bear, and the Baby Bear" -- unless, perhaps, you were the president and your children's version contained a number of additional bears, including Smokey Bear, PC Bear, Hopey Bear, and Changie Bear.

Misusing "like" and "including" is not fatal. It's just careless (English teachers used to take points off for it) or, in President Obama's case probably, deliberately deceptive.

But back to Illinois. According to the March 4, 2010 Chicago Tribune, "Consumers in Illinois who lose their jobs and have no other option but to buy their own health insurance will get socked this year with premium increases of up to 60 percent…."

Whoa! The president went from that to "they keep arbitrarily and massively raising premiums -- by as much as 60 percent… ."

What the Chicago Tribune is saying is that individuals who lost their company health insurance will have to pay 60 percent more for an individual policy than they had been paying (out of pocket) for coverage under the company's policy.

"Out of pocket" is important here: it is well known (even, one must assume, in the White House) that employers who pay for their workers' health insurance pay their workers less than they would if they were not paying for that insurance. Indeed, that has been a central point of contention in the health care debate. A worker is worth only so much. He can be paid either in cash or in benefits (often untaxed), or partly in each. According to the Chicago Tribune's story, "Big firms commonly pay about $1,000 a month [for health insurance] per employee, with the individual employee paying about 20 percent to 30 percent of that amount."

Some employees may not focus on who's really footing the health insurance bill. Others may be well aware that their employer is paying 70 to 80 percent of the premiums, but know also that those funds are really wages that are being snuck out to the insurance companies without their having to pay income taxes on them.

Company health insurance policies are different from individual policies for a variety of reasons, and so their premiums will also differ.

What the president was doing was like comparing Goldilocks to Goldfinger. That's a good rhetorical trick, if you can get away with it.

Polls indicate the president can't. So do recent elections.

So when the president said in his radio address, "If you like the insurance plan you have now, you can keep it," people probably didn't believe him.

And when he said, "Doctors and patients will have more control over their health care decisions," people probably didn't believe him.

And when he indicated that his socialized medicine plan will prevent Medicare and Medicaid from sinking our government deeper and deeper into debt, probably no one believed him.

Except, perhaps, some White House bears, including Hopey and Changie.

 

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About the Author

Daniel Oliver is a Senior Director of White House Writers Group in Washington, D.C. He served as Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission under President Ronald Reagan.