Special Report

Hopelessly Mandated

Barack Obama may pretend he's opposed to individual mandates, but all signs suggest he's no less in favor of coercive universal health care than Dr. Hillary herself.

By 1.22.08

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It's true: Barack Obama frequently speaks out against the insurance mandates Mitt Romney has been taken to task for instituting, enraging portions of the liberal left and causing some conservative observers to swoon. Yet before allowing our hearts to melt into sentimental purple goop and pinning an I'm an Obama Republican! button on our chests, it might be wise to take at least a cursory glance at Obama's health-care proposals.

I pray it will not boil the hope out of anyone to learn Obama can afford to oppose individual mandates in the short-term mostly because he plans to create a government health-care system so omnipresent in our lives and so intrusive in the once-free-market that it will hardly matter what kind of soaring rhetoric it is dressed up in.

Does anyone really believe, for example, there is no mandate implicit in Obama's stated goal of creating a national health-care plan with universal eligibility and "subsidies" for those below an unspecified income level to buy into it? Is he going to fund that with gobs of small donations, too, or simply mandate taxpayers foot the bill for the non-mandate, whether they purchase the insurance or not? Who can miss the non-mandate mandate in Obama's proposed National Health Insurance Exchange, a new bureaucracy designed to "help individuals who wish to purchase a private insurance plan"?

Here's the little illiberal blurb on this bit of state coercion and regulation:

The Exchange will act as a watchdog group and help reform the private insurance market by creating rules and standards for participating insurance plans to ensure fairness and to make individual coverage more affordable and accessible. Insurers would have to issue every applicant a policy, and charge fair and stable premiums that will not depend upon health status. The Exchange will require that all the plans offered are at least as generous as the new public plan and have the same standards for quality and efficiency.

So much for Saint Barrack of the Church of Individual Responsibility. He begins with the assumption that the federal government is the uncontestable expert on efficiency, fairness and generosity -- not exactly a left-libertarian position, even in the context of the Edwards and Clinton mandates -- and works his way forward from there, making clear he will brook no dissent from private companies. It is creating the crisis that will lead to de facto single-payer: Eventually the IRS will be charging everyone so much for national health insurance we'd all be crazy not to plug our little parasite cords into the leviathan.

What's more, for all the trouble it has caused him in the liberal blogosphere, Obama may only be triangulating on the health-care issue with an eye toward gaining the trust of independent voters and disaffected Republicans next November.

David Cutler, a Harvard economics professor and Obama's senior health-care adviser, has been quite candid about the very real possibility of Obama forcing everyone to buy health insurance if they fail to embrace his national health-care system. "If there are free riders, Obama is open to mandates," Cutler told the weblog The Sentinel Effect, adding, "He hasn't ruled anything out. It's a matter of priorities. The fact is the policy differences on the mandate issue aren't that large at all. Sen. Obama believes they're an option down the road, if other approaches don't work."

That Obama is likely to have a post-election conversion is precisely what incisive universal health-care advocates such as Ezra Klein seem to fear most.

"The absence of a mandate in his plan was a minor disappointment," Klein writes. "But his decision to launch an assault on the very idea of the individual mandate was a major problem. It's overwhelmingly likely that the next incarnation of universal health care will be based around an individual mandate. And when that happens, it's overwhelmingly likely that the airwaves will be blanketed with Barack Obama's arguments against it, even as Obama supports the eventual plan from his seat in the Senate or place in the White House (and he will -- his plan has a mandate for children, and he's repeatedly professed openness to a mandate for adults)."

None of this is new. Often as not for Obama, the politics of hope has been about hoping no one bothers to dig very deep into the absurdly-general-yet-poetic flowery proclamations his entire campaign is based upon. When, for example, Tim Russert queried Obama recently about his 2004 equivocations on the Iraq War -- specifically, responding, "What would I have done? I don't know" when asked about the force resolution and, further, claiming, "There's not much of a difference between my position on Iraq and George Bush's position at this stage" -- Obama made clear he did not consider himself bound by statements made for political expediency.

"Now, Tim, that first quote was made in an interview with a guy named Tim Russert on Meet the Press during the convention when we had a nominee for the presidency and a vice president, both of whom had voted for the war," Obama lectured. "And so it, it probably was the wrong time for me to be making a strong case against our party's nominees' decisions when it came to Iraq."

Of course! Why be honest and up-front when there's an election to be won!

Likewise, now, as Obama parades around in the utterly undeserved mantle of Post-Partisan Independent Uniter, looking for a way to differentiate himself from his opponents, it is clearly the "wrong time" for him to be pushing individual mandates. But the back-story of how he will come to be forced to embrace mandates is already being prepared. He'll attack the "free riders" and obstinate employers and National Health Insurance Exchange will look high and low without ever finding a private insurance company that is acting fair. And what will those who praised Obama for what is no doubt to be just one scene in this endless dog and pony show get for their trouble?

Not much, likely, save a terrible insurance policy, a lifetime's worth of frustrating calls to unresponsive federal bureaucrats, and a sob story nobody wants to hear about how the cold water of President Obama's reality paradoxically boiled that hope out of them.

American Spectator Contributing Editor Shawn Macomber is writing a book on the Global Class War.

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