Topic: Government & Politics

Obama, YouTube, Health Reform and Honest Abe

Ethics are at risk when we become convinced that success is crucial and failure will be disastrous. In its efforts to pass comprehensive health care reform, the Obama administration has been treading very close to the ethical edge and probably crossing it, using misleading statistics and overly optimistic cost projections. Now, as the opposition has begun to make inroads, the White House has apparently decided that it is worth sacrificing honesty, integrity and credibility to accomplish its health care objectives. President Obama may pay a high price for this decision, just as his predecessor paid a high price for hyping the justification for an Iraq invasion. If he does pay that price, he will have earned it.

A vivid example of the willingness of the White House to stoop to deception came in the form of a YouTube battle, sparked when some Obama-care foes spliced together videos showing the President, back when he was running for Senator, stating his support of a single-payer (translation: U.S. government-funded) health care system, along with videos of some House Democrats, such as Barney Frank, making it clear that they believed single-payer was the ultimate goal.


Now, this video is completely self-explanatory. The video’s makers, as well as some commentators on the Right, seem to think that what Obama said in 2003 proves that he is lying now, when he swears that under his plan, Americans will be able to keep private health insurance if they want to. Maybe Obama is fibbing now and maybe he isn’t, but a 2003 video only proves what he said, and perhaps believed, in 2003. Does it justify asking the President to explain the discrepancy, and to tell us why he no longer believes what he said then? Sure it does, which is why using the clip is fair. But it is nonsense to imply that it tells us his “true feelings” about health care reform in 2009.

If Abe Lincoln had to cope with YouTube, he would have been sunk. As noted by Sean Willentz in his review of several new Lincoln biographies for The New Republic,


Lincoln gave a speech in Springfield, Ill. opposing the presidential candidacy of Franklin Pierce during the 1852 campaign. Lincoln attacked Pierce as a Yankee who was catering to anti-slavery northerners, and accused Pierce of expressed a "loathing" for the Fugitive Slave Law, which Congress had passed two years earlier to help masters and their hirelings retrieve runaway slaves fleeing to the North. Lincoln defended the law as perfectly constitutional, and charged that Pierce’s position favored slaves over the rights of slaveholders and slave hunters. Were these his “true feelings” about slavery in 1860? Obviously not; it would be illogical and unfair to insist so. It would have been fair, however to ask Honest Abe how and why his position had evolved. Lucky for him, YouTube was far, far in the future.

The White House’s response to the critical YouTube piece, however, was flat-out dishonest. It quickly posted “The Truth About Health Care Insurance Reform,” also to YouTube.


It is hosted by former ABC reporter Linda Douglass, now communications director for the administration’s health-reform efforts. “There are a lot of very deceiving headlines out there right now,” she says, pointing to the Drudge Report link that reads, “Uncovered video: Obama explains how his health care plan will eliminate private insurance.” [Note: Drudge’s headline is misleading, in that it suggests the video is current. Of course, anyone who clicked on the link would rapidly be disabused of that notion. Calling it “deceiving” is a stretch.] She goes on to say, “Nothing could be farther from the truth… You know, there are people out there with a computer and a lot of free time, and they take a phrase here and there. They simply cherry-pick and put it together and make it sound like he’s saying something he didn’t really say.”

Now wait a minute. The full video of that 2003 speech is on the web, and Obama does say he wants a single-payer system. How can the White House say, “nothing can be farther from the truth”? Obama said it. That’s not far from the truth at all. Douglas then says, “Here are some they won’t show you,” and follows with a series of video clips of Obama saying now that his health reform won’t squeeze out private insurance. She presents this as “proof” that the other video’s assertions are false. Of course, they don’t prove anything of the sort. They prove that, like Lincoln, Obama has said one thing at one time in from of one audience and something very different later. Indeed, the opposition video begins with a clip of Obama in 2009 stating his commitment to allowing private insurance to continue. It is the White House video that is engaging in full-fledged disinformation.

So which is Obama’s real intention and belief—single-payer, or a system that allows private plans?

I don’t know. Nor do you. I think the president should generally be given the benefit of the doubt, but neither video tells us. The two videos together tell us that if the President is interested in candor, honesty and transparency, he needs to explain the discrepancy between his statements in 2003 and now. Putting out a video that suggests that the opposition video is some kind of technological fraud, like the fake photo that purported to show John Kerry at a Jane Fonda rally, does not make me more inclined to believe him.

To the contrary.

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