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PolitiFact makes ‘you can keep your health plan’ the ‘Lie of the Year’

President Obama blew it, but is there really a lie of the year?

PolitiFact has named, as the “Lie of the Year” for 2013, President Obama’s oft-repeated statement that if you like your health-care plan, you can keep it.

If you read the whole PolitiFact writeup, you will definitely gain an elevated understanding of what Obama said (although he said it many different ways over the years since he started saying it), why he said it, and why it is a falsehood.

You’ll also see that Obama has tried to own up to his falsehood, but in a half-baked way (for example, two quotes from Obama’s so-called apologies:

“There is no doubt that the way I put that forward unequivocally ended up not being accurate;” and

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“We weren’t as clear as we needed to be in terms of the changes that were taking place, and I want to do everything we can to make sure that people are finding themselves in a good position, a better position than they were before this law happened. And I am sorry that they are finding themselves in this situation based on assurances they got from me.”

Most politicians wouldn’t go as far as Obama did in conceding that they had misled the public. But I still find those Obama takebacks pitifully lame. You can’t find the spot where he acknowledges that he knowingly said something false.

Root of the falsehood

Here’s my educated guess of what’s at the root of the falsehood, based on a conversation with Howard Lavine, a U of M political scientist who specializes in the intersection of politics and psychology.

The public is risk averse. We assign much more weight to the possibility that something will get worse than the possibility that it will get better. Most Americans are covered by health insurance, but millions are not. Obamacare is designed to extend health insurance to many millions who don’t have it, and to make health insurance better for many who have it. When Obama tells that to the public, it’s what Lavine calls it a “gain frame.” Big time. But he added: “When you frame something as a gain, it makes people risk averse.” 

My understanding of that statement is that when a person who has health insurance hears a statement about a government program that is going to help help millions of people who don’t have health insurance, the person is powerfully stimulated to fear that somehow this is going to make their own situation worse. When Team Obama was putting together the sales pitch for the Affordable Care Act, it makes sense that they wanted to send a very strong reassurance to those already with health care, especially those who were satisfied with their health care, that the ACA wouldn’t make their situation worse. If you think along those lines, you can see how appealing a statement would be that if you like your health insurance, you can keep it and nothing about this new law will make your insurance worse. I must assume that this kind of thinking was the parent of Obama’s “if you like what you have, you can keep it” refrain.

And it’s true for most Americans who have good health coverage. In 2012, PolitiFact itself rated the Obama statement “Half-true.”

But it’s an oversimplification. It is false for millions of Americans. When someone receives a letter informing them that, as a result of the ACA, their health insurance policy is being canceled, they will feel that Obama lied to them.

Personally, I observe a very high bar before I call something a “lie.” The word is thrown around too easily. The lie of the year might be that there is a lie of the year.