President Obama is rather fond of presenting himself as a champion of the people — the only choice for the average citizens who, through “no fault of their own” and having “played by the rules,” are screwed over by a bleak and unjust system. Heroic language was a mainstay during his campaigns of 2008 and 2012, and it continues to be deployed today. “Millions of Americans who work hard and play by the rules every day deserve a government and a financial system that do the same,” argued Obama during the State of the Union in 2012. “It’s time to apply the same rules from top to bottom. No bailouts, no handouts, and no cop-outs. An America built to last insists on responsibility from everybody.” Through an ill-disguised desire to “fundamentally transform” the place, he would be the man to build that America.
Among those whom the president has explicitly deemed to be losing out “through no fault of their own” are illegal immigrants who were brought here as children, federal workers who were furloughed during the recent government shutdown, and “homeowners facing foreclosure.” Oddly enough, however, he has yet to mention the millions of responsible and admirable Americans who for years purchased health insurance on the individual market and who are now being thrown off their plans — through no fault of their own, of course, but by him and his central political achievement.
These are the 5 million — and counting — self-reliant types who have not merely suffered the indignity of being forcefully deprived of plans with which they were largely happy, but have also been forced to sit helplessly by while a parade of imperious, preening elites explained to them with barely concealed disdain that their choices could no longer be tolerated by the state. “I am completely happy with my plan,” Margaret Davis of California lamented last week in a widely published letter to Senator Dianne Feinstein. Perhaps you are, Margaret. But the president is not, and in modern America that is all that matters. Now, for the same catastrophic plan, Davis faces an 88 percent increase in her premiums — and less coverage. Is this “fair”?
Obamacare has always been just one more presidential speech away from popularity. If people could just be taught to act against their interests, the theory went, they would submit with relish. In fact, the opposite has happened. At one level, one cannot help but feel sorry for the Obama voter who griped that, while she wanted people to have health insurance, she didn’t realize she “would be the one who was going to pay for it personally.” Why would she? The president promised her that the law wouldn’t affect her, that it would probably cut her rates, and that it was designed only to help the indigent and punish the free-riders while leaving the self-sufficient alone. Nobody said anything about losers.
Likewise, one can muster some pity for Lori Gottlieb, a contributing editor at The Atlantic, who related on the New York Times’ op-ed page that her armchair-progressive friends’ response to the $5,400 rate hike with which she had been slammed was to assure her that the collective was now better off. “Has Obamacare made it un-P.C. to be concerned by a serious burden on my family’s well-being?” Gottlieb asked rhetorically, before concluding reluctantly that the “self-employed middle class is being sacrificed at the altar of politically correct rhetoric, with nobody helping to ensure our health, fiscal or otherwise.”
Gottlieb concluded that her lefty friends reacted in this aloof manner “because it’s trendy to cheer for the underdog.” Maybe so. But only in part is this the reason. Another reason is that America has briefly fallen foul to the dangerous notion that “experts” are to be trusted to run a republic and, too, that politicians who are known to be radicals should be taken at their word. President Obama is a man who talks the talk of personal responsibility but walks the walk of redistribution and control. Until now, the words and not the actions have drawn the attention of the majority. It will be a difficult habit to change, even when the evidence is blatant.
To those of us who have been critics of Obamacare since the outset, it has come as no surprise that its architects care little for the practical consequences of their remaking. The truth has always been that the law was intended not only to insure those who lack coverage but also to force insurance products to conform to what the president and his team believe they should be. Acting as if he were citing something absolute — as opposed to merely the subjective view of his administration — the president has railed against what he calls “substandard” insurance while his acolytes talk of “blowing up” the market. Jacobins abound. The bourgeoisie should be trembling.
It is bad enough that self-employed and individually insured Americans are being dictated to from a faraway city. After all, there is neither a moral nor legal provision in the United States Constitution that allows the executive to decide what free men should choose to buy. And yet it gets worse when one acknowledges that the services that the government wishes to foist upon the individual market are generally inferior. “President Obama will soon become the country’s biggest purveyor of second-rate coverage,” doctor and former FDA official Scott Gottlieb (no relation to Lori) wrote in the New York Post. “Many of the policies sold in the exchanges are ‘narrow network’ plans with very limited choice of doctors.” Hard workers could be forgiven for looking at their efforts and wondering, “Why bother?”
One of the things that has distinguished America from the social democracies of Europe is that its safety net was just that: a net into which one might fall but in which one would not be enveloped. In Europe, one is pushed into interaction with the government as a matter of course — and even encouraged to engage. In America, there was traditionally help if you really needed it, but you had to be old or poor or disabled first. Obamacare changes that, interfering in the lives of the millions of Americans who had no intention of getting involved with the state and saying breezily to the self-sustaining middle class that there is no escape from the insidious meddling of a corpulent Uncle Sam — even if they do work hard and play by the rules every day. I agree with the president: America’s hard workers do “deserve a government and a financial system” that is responsive to their sacrifice, their conscientiousness, and their sense of duty. But I’m afraid that this isn’t it.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.