President Barack Obama just admitted that the "settled law of the land" isn't the least bit settled, and it hasn't been sabotaged by Republicans so much as by the ignorance and incompetence of his own administration.
Presidents have had worse press conferences than President Obama's announcing a "fix" for people losing their health insurance, but probably not much worse. He had to resort to his desperation executive maneuver under the pressure of a full-blown Democratic panic on Capitol Hill and rebuke from none other than Bill Clinton.
In an interview with Ozy.com, the former president addressed those millions of Americans getting cancellation notices from their insurance companies, despite Obama's infamous promise that they could keep their plans. "I personally believe," Clinton said, "even if it takes a change in the law, the president should honor the commitment the federal government made to these people and let them keep what they got."
The words were barely out of Clinton's mouth before the speculation over his motives began. For the sake of argument, let's be overly credulous and assume that he simply thinks it's wrong for a president to lie to people about whether they can keep their health insurance.
If Democrats were inclined to catch the falling flag of Obama's credibility as they once were with Clinton's, they might take a page from the 1990s and insist that "everyone lies about historic health-care legislation." They aren't so inclined. They not only tied themselves to the law, they repeated Obama's false promise themselves, and evidently don't appreciate it one bit.
Maybe they genuinely didn't know better. Our representatives in Congress can't be expected to read or understand legislation they support to transform a major sector of the American economy. These are busy and important people, after all. But at the very least, the president's policy staff could have let them in on the joke.
Obama's promise on insurance wasn't just injudicious, it was completely impossible. It wasn't an incidental falsehood but ran counter to the central premise of his own health-care law. People losing their current insurance isn't an unintended consequence of the law; it is an intended consequence without which much of the law doesn't work. Its viability depends on people being forced from their current policies and onto the exchanges.
That's why Obama's "fix" is so deeply cynical. Its purpose is to provide the greatest possible political cover while having the smallest possible real-world effect. The White House hopes congressional Democrats can point to the administrative action as addressing the problem of cancellations, at the same time insurers and state regulators won't be able to reverse field and undo the train of policy cancellations already underway.
The White House vehicle is, as usual, a unilateral and undemocratic act. There's no reason that the president couldn't have asked Congress to change the law, except he wouldn't have total control over the process. It's not clear, though, that his ploy will work. At the end of the day, it might not forestall congressional action, and it may be that insurers manage to preserve enough policies outside of the exchanges to further undermine the struggling health-care law.
At the very least, the president has again shown that he is perfectly happy to rewrite the law, when it suits him. At his press conference, he repeatedly said that he and his team had fumbled the ball on Obamacare implementation and misunderstood basic things, like how people buy insurance. These are the same people who think they possess the administrative mastery to run highly complex law-remaking swaths of the American economy.
As for his promise about people keeping their insurance, the president admitted he knew it wasn't going to be true for everyone. Even his fix is only good for a year, because he ultimately needs those people on the exchanges. He never meant his promise, and he still doesn't. No wonder even Bubba might be shocked.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.