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PolitiFact makes ‘you can keep your health plan’ the ‘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

“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.

Comments (31)

  1. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 12/13/2013 - 11:27 am.

    The problem that the GOP faces…

    is that most people genuinely want an improvement in our healthcare system.

    And the GOP has done nothing positive to offer a solution to this problem. What’s worse is that the original idea for Obamacare came from the GOP. How is Obamacare really any different from Romneycare?

    And prior to Romneycare the Heritage Foundation came up with the concept of the individual mandate that is at the heart of the Affordable Care Act.

    See: Original 1989 document where Heritage Foundation created Obamacare’s individual mandate

    So now we have Minnesota senatorial candidates – I am looking at Mr. Mills – campaigning on repeal of Obamacare?

    In his dreams.

    If calling Obama a liar, because he underestimated the difficulties of ending lousy insurance programs, then their prospects in the next election are not that great, at least in the mostly sane state of Minnesota.

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 12/13/2013 - 11:47 am.

    An overstatement is still not a lie.

    It might rate half a Pinnochio (or is it a Heffalump?) at best.
    If this is the worst they can come up with (and PolitiaFrack is not a nonpartisan organization), they’re scraping the bottom.

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 12/13/2013 - 11:50 am.

    And remember….

    NO ONE with a health plan from a private insurance plan has ever been guaranteed to be able to keep it. People’s coverage is cancelled all the time.
    This is the price of turning a government function over to a private industry.

  4. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/13/2013 - 11:55 am.

    Good ol’ Politifact

    A statement that was “half true” in 2012 is the “Lie of the Year” in 2013. I can think of two explanations for this phenomenon:

    1. 2013 was an unusually truthful year, and the standards for the biggest lie have become lower.

    2. Politifact is desperate to prove that they are balanced and fair, and not picking on conservatives.

    It was still a false statement, and a bad one, but I can’t help but wonder if there is less here than meets the eye.

  5. Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 12/13/2013 - 12:53 pm.

    Thank you, Eric

    “Personally, I observe a very high bar before I call something a ‘lie.’ The word is thrown around too easily.”

    Thank you for that. To me, the act of “telling a lie” has a level of malevolence, or wish to do harm or to mislead, associated with it that I just don’t think fits here.

    I agree that he has really been digging himself in deeper with the followup, and I wish he’d been smarter about handling all of this than he has been. That’s a disappointment that isn’t fun to face.

    But initially this was a campaign promise associated with a piece of legislation which had not even been crafted yet (and then was done by a very disjointed Congress).

    The backpedaling since has been clumsy – albeit “paved with good intentions”.

    But “malevolent” it wasn’t.

    • Submitted by Steven Bailey on 12/13/2013 - 07:35 pm.

      For Malevolent please see articles about Obama and the TPP. (or go back a bit and read the NYTimes articles by Kilpatirick detailing how Obama sabotaged the public option, drug re-importation, Medicare negotiating for drug prices, etc) If you still seek to defend Obama after reading these articles than we have a very different definition of “malevolent”. I voted for Obama in 2008 and it is the worst vote of my life,.

      • Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 12/14/2013 - 08:50 am.

        Off topic

        This article was about the “You can keep your health care plan if you like it” statement. That’s what my reply was in reference to.

        If you want to discuss those other issues, perhaps you can find articles to comment on that actually discuss them (or utilize MinnPost’s “Community Voices” option to write one of your own if you feel these are topics you’d like to see discussion on).

        But my comment RE:Malevolent was strictly and specifically related to the “You can keep your health care plan if you like it” statement and I won’t be baited off-topic to “defend” something I wasn’t even talking about.

  6. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 12/13/2013 - 01:07 pm.

    From the Politifact story:

    ….It is too soon to say what the lasting impact of “if you like your health care plan, you can keep it” will be….

    I’m pretty certain that hundreds of thousands will die, millions will be displaced and trillions will be spent as a result of this.

    That’s how important this is.

    But seriously, my vote would be James Clapper perjury to Congress related to NSA surveillance. Talk about a major, premeditated, consequential lie that strikes at the heart of the idea of a free society.

    But who cares.

  7. Submitted by Rosalind Kohls on 12/13/2013 - 02:23 pm.


    What makes the lie worse is that President Obama repeated it more than 30 times. Also, Congressional Democrats voted unanimously in 2010 against allowing Americans to “keep their health plans if they liked them,” and then stayed silent about it while Obama continued to lie.

    • Submitted by jason myron on 12/13/2013 - 06:03 pm.

      Sure, Rosalind…

      you go right ahead hyperventilating about Obama’s “lie” while you conveniently forget about the lies perpetuated by the Bush administration that got thousands of America’s Finest killed for absolutely nothing.

  8. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 12/13/2013 - 10:39 pm.

    A question

    I wonder if Bush’s assertion that Iraq had WMD was a lie? My guess is that for most Democrats it was (Bush lied, kids died). But he was just repeating what most world intelligence agencies (American, French, British, Israeli, even Russian, I think) were thinking. Obama, on the other hand, was trying to promote his signature law so he was supposed to know every single bit of it. If he knew, then it was a deliberate lie; if he didn’t, then he was trying to sell something to us that he didn’t know much about. Either way, Obama’s claims look way worse than Bush’s – let’s all admit it.

    • Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 12/14/2013 - 09:05 am.


      What I will agree with was he made a statement about a law that he didn’t know every single bit of. (I’m specifically referring to the very earliest times he said it – when the law hadn’t actually been written yet, and the statement was essentially a campaign promise.) Of course he was trying to “sell” something to us – just like every candidate who hopes to be elected and hopes to have his ideas implemented once that happens.

      What I won’t agree with is that Obama’s overambitious campaign promises made in hopes of implementing a very complex health care law (that hadn’t even been written yet) are worse than poorly supported statements (I’m being generous here) made by Bush and his administration about the situation on the ground – statements of “fact” that were made with the objective of leading this country into an invasion and later war that resulted in massive loss of life.

      Overambitious promises about a proposed health care law meant to SAVE lives v.s. inaccurate claims about the current existence of WMDs meant to TAKE lives – it’s pretty clear to me which one is “way worse”, and it should be to you, too.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 12/14/2013 - 09:37 am.

      And your distortions

      of the historical record are at least as bad as Obama’s statement.

  9. Submitted by jason myron on 12/14/2013 - 11:20 am.

    I’ll admit nothing of the sort.

    Bush was itching to go into Iraq and there are enough inside sources to prove it. Bush actually got people killed and cost this country trillions of dollars while destabilizing the region and strengthening Iran in the process… not to mention creating more animosity towards this country, thereby helping Al Qaeda recruit more disaffected youth as terrorists. Once again, please continue to equate all of that with a small percentage of people who will have to get insurance that actually covers illness. By the way…I’m loving this new embrace of Politifact by conservatives who, up until now, disavowed it is as yet another example of “liberal media bias.”

  10. Submitted by Diane Nelson on 12/14/2013 - 02:37 pm.

    If you like your doctor

    you can keep him was also part of Obama’s effort to explain how the ACA is not going to force folks from what they currently have, obviously only where it continues to be in the marketplace, legal, and therefore available to them.

    Surely physicians have since retired, moved, lost their license, or died, and their patients can no longer keep their doctor.

    Where’s the outrage to this *lie?*

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 12/15/2013 - 09:09 am.

      That’s the leading candidate

      for Lie of the Year 2014.

      Look, Obama lied about Obamacare because if he had told the truth, it wouldn’t have been passed by congress, nor would he have been re-elected. It’s as simple as that.

      • Submitted by jason myron on 12/15/2013 - 11:28 pm.

        It’s simple all right…

        simple speculation…nothing more.

        • Submitted by Robert Owen on 12/17/2013 - 08:37 am.

          When politicians in the president’s own party are distancing themselves from this and key constituencies such as labor unions are asking for exemptions from it it’s a little more than simple speculation.

          • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 12/18/2013 - 09:34 am.

            The fact that

            a lot of Koch Bros money has made the ACA politically unpopular has nothing to do with the truth of the statement.
            As Tina Turner might have said: ‘What has truth got to do with it’?
            This is pure politics by a desperate party.

            On another front, I’ve been reading Richard Moe’s “FDR’s Second Act” about the 1940 election. He describes the GOP’s obstructionist role in both the New Deal and support of Great Britain in the period before our entry into the war. It’s amazing how little the Republican party has changed!

  11. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 12/14/2013 - 08:20 pm.

    Historical record

    If Obama said it once, not many would have picked on that. But what was Obama doing repeating that assertion more than 30 times, even after the law was written and passed? And while it is true that every politician lies and tries to “sell” something to the voters, it does not make those lies less significant. On the other hand, I am surprised that some people totally missed my point that Bush just repeated what security agencies were saying and there is no proof that he knew they were wrong; so technically, he did not lie while Obama did since I can’t imagine that he did not know that under his law people would lose their insurance since it is actually a condition for that law to work (young and healthy will subsidize old and sick).

    By the way, leading a country into a war may be a way to save lives if a short war is needed to prevent inevitable long and bloody war. Chamberlain in Munich in 1938 thought that he was saving lives by NOT going to war while, in fact, he could have saved countless number of lives by going to war. And of course Bush didn’t kill people – Iraqis did. All the rest of the negative consequences of the Iraq war are actually the consequences of the attempt to build a democracy there, not the war itself. There is a big difference here. (We want more and more people to go to college but overestimate the ability of all of them to graduate; as a result, a lot of money is wasted and people are prevented from earning a decent living by other means. Should we blame all those who push below average students to go to college?) If Bush can be accused of anything, it is his overestimation of Iraq’s ability to become a democracy.

    Of course, “you can keep your doctor…” is also a lie but it has not come to prominence so far since people have not started using their new insurance yet; they will in January and that is when this lie will be all over. And people will lose their doctors not because they would retire or move but because the new insurance plans obtained under the new law will not include those doctors as providers.

    And finally, which historical records have I distorted? We should all try to be more specific.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 12/15/2013 - 09:54 am.

      The bombing of Baghdad

      under Bush’s orders killed at least hundreds of thousands.
      What I would accuse the Bushes of is not any interest in democracy (that was just regime change to get more compliant business partners) but an excessive greed for oil profits.
      That’s why we went into Iraq despite the fact that we were attacked from Pashtunistan (areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan) by Egyptians.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 12/16/2013 - 04:02 pm.

      The Record

      Wait, you aren’t seriously trying to compare the Iraq War to WWII, are you? One was perpetrated by a couple of countries (Italy doesn’t really count) that were bent on taking over the world and the other was some nut who didn’t have the capability to do more than make trouble for his immediate neighbors.

      Bush got us into a totally unnecessary war with a country that posed zero threat to the United States and cost thousands of American lives, not to mention Iraqi lives and infrastructure. We spent trillions of dollars over there for no gain–money that would have been far better spent here at home building up bridges so they don’t collapse or creating a universal single payer health care system.

      Sadly, this is far and away not the worst thing he and his administration can be accused of, given the worst financial collapse since the Great Depression and his advocacy of torture. Talk about rewriting history!

  12. Submitted by David Rasmussen on 12/15/2013 - 09:40 am.

    MinnPost, Please Label More of the Lies

    I support ACA and have always supported it. I also have sometimes purchased the kind of catastrophic-only insurance that ACA outlaws. I understand the reasons and I can live with the changes. This is not a subject that makes me angry.

    Nonetheless, it is important to hold our leaders accountable. Labeling an untrue statement that Obama repeated many times over a period of years as “lie of the year” helps us to keep our leaders accountable. With the president volunteering as “liar of the year”, why would PolitiFact look elsewhere?

    Our media, even MinnPost, does not do analysis well. Lies are rarely reported as such. Eric Black, you are the rare exception who often analyzes the veracity of what our politicians say in an objective way.

    Here’s an idea. MinnPost, could you please print a lie of the day? Start with what our local leaders say on the record. If nothing stands out, analyze critically what the local activist organizations on the left and on the right are saying. There should never be a need to crib from other sources. Eric Black? Please?

    • Submitted by Scott Kelley on 12/16/2013 - 07:51 pm.

      David, nice honest post

      When you can support the law and still hold Obama accountable for what he said is commendable. I strongly believe in universal health care but I have some serious concerns over what is in ACA and what people were told when about what was in it.

      It’s also tiresome to continue to hear the “Bush was much worse” comments. Whether they’re true or not isn’t relevant to the ACA discussion and only provokes more emotional responses.

      I also echo Mr. Rasmussen’s call for better analysis in MinnPost and, I would add, less snideness which is more distractive than additive to stories. . Mr. Black is the exception although I wish he would devote more time to the local (Minnesota) scene which should be MinnPost’s strength.

  13. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 12/15/2013 - 07:31 pm.

    Real facts ony…

    I wonder where the information about hundreds of thousands killed during Bush ordered bombing of Baghdad came from… About 100,000 died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a direct result of a nuclear bomb (more died later but that was a result of radiation). So bombing of Baghdad was worse than bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? How come I never heard of that?

    And of course it is ridiculous to accuse Bush of going to Iraq for oil profit – it would have been much cheaper to buy oil since Saddam never refused to sell it.

    I am sure that those things are somewhere on the internet but so are Holocaust denial and the UFO’s.

    Seriously, we may differ in opinions but let’s not resort to cheap conspiracy theories and ridiculous imaginary events.

    • Submitted by Pat Berg since 2011 on 12/16/2013 - 07:48 am.

      Strange connections

      I thought we were talking about Obama’s campaign promises regarding the Affordable Care Act (which was meant to save lives), not which war killed more people and who did the killing.

      I’m still just astounded that people can seriously propose that misstatements about legislation intended to save lives that hadn’t even been written yet (and wasn’t even being written by the one making the misstatements) are somehow worse than misrepresentations of the reality of facts on the ground that had the end result of the loss of many, many lives.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 12/16/2013 - 09:30 am.

      You could start by reading archival newspapers

      like the Times and the Washington Post.
      The fact that Saddam was willing to sell oil doesn’t mean that the Bushes would make a profit on his price — a compliant state would offer a better deal.
      As for deaths at Hiroshima and Nagasaki:
      Current research has shown that deaths from secondary radiation poisoning are a lot lower than originally predicted.
      On the other hand, the fire bombing of Tokyo killed far more than the nuclear attacks on Hirosima and Nagasaki.
      And yes, many of the deaths in Baghdad are attributable to secondary effects such as the destruction of the infrastructure (lack of health, sanitation, electric power reduced to several hours a day).

  14. Submitted by Richard Patten on 12/16/2013 - 09:06 am.

    “You can keep your doctor” not a lie.

    ACA policy offerings have to meet standards, such as no rejection because of pre-existing conditions, no coverage limits, offspring to age 26 can be on parent policies, etc. Obama said that if you sign up for ACE and like your doctors, you can keep them. This is true. Where is the lie? It looks like a lie only if you accept the Fox News-generated misinterpretation that Obama said you can keep your non-ACA policy. Maximum feasible misunderstanding, admitted by JFK, has always been a staple political tactic.

    • Submitted by Robert Owen on 12/17/2013 - 08:35 am.

      The president said you can keep your doctor. He didn’t say “keep your doctor if…” or “keep your doctor but…” He was adamant that you could keep your doctor and he didn’t mention that the rules about keeping doctors would be changing by the way.

  15. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 12/16/2013 - 10:35 pm.


    I am not comparing WWII and Iraq war – I am comparing some aspects of them which are comparable. And it is easy to call Saddam crazy now when he is gone; I wonder how he would be called if he acquired nukes and took over Kuwait. Yes we are all smart after we know but unfortunately presidents have to make decisions when they do not know everything (one more time, Bush acted on the basis of security agencies’ assertions – no one can dispute that). So accusing him of lying is unfair – he did not misrepresent any facts as he knew them. (And accusing him of going to war for money or bringing a financial collapse is just ridiculous – no president has a power to do it.) Obama, on the other hand, made multiple statements (not misstatements as some want to call them) about a law that he had created and what should have been under his control. Can everyone see a difference? What the law was supposed to achieve is irrelevant. Or do we think that the end justifies any means?

    Now about the number of bombing victims. Firebombing of Tokyo arguably might have killed more than nuclear bombings but that has nothing to do with the number of bombing victims in Baghdad. You can try to include secondary effects but the connection is not direct in most cases (except radiation, of course). That is not how the bombing statistics is usually derived and that makes a hundreds of thousands number unsupported to say the least.

    As for the truthfulness of “you can keep your doctor…” statement, one has to consider a question: “Can a person lose a doctor as a result of the new law?” And since the answer is a definite Yes (for example, your old doctor may not take your new insurance), the statement constitutes a lie.

    By the way, I am not such a big fan of Bush, especially his second term; I just hate when people accuse him of anything and everything but do not want to see any fault in Obama.

  16. Submitted by jody rooney on 12/19/2013 - 01:38 am.

    How could you tell if the Pres lied?

    He has proven to be inept both as a legislative strategist and as an executive selecting appointments to office I would just call him a person who has reached his level of incompetence.

    I would prefer that he was better at his job or he hired people who were good at their jobs, but that didn’t happen and I don’t think the alternatives were attractive..

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