Barack Obama is the latest version of a presidential Great Communicator, and he’s really pretty good. But his communication skills lately have served as a reminder that substance still counts for more than style. The debate over health care reform — which Obama now calls health insurance reform, signaling a scaling-back of aspiration — illustrates that. The appearance of presidential glibness in dismissing what he calls misrepresentations may have done as much to hurt his cause as the machinations of any K Street lobbyist.
This problem surfaced early on the key issue of cost. Obama insisted that his approach would save money, but the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office testified it would enormously increase the deficit. Where adding and subtracting are concerned, who do you believe — a politician anxious to make his mark or professional number crunchers? The number crunchers win hands-down.
But if a president is not serious about the numbers — and Obama isn’t the first president of whom that might be said — it gets harder to take seriously other claims he makes.
Consider the health plan’s provision for end of life counseling for elderly people (an idea now apparently dropped from the bill in the Senate). The president was right to reject the claim that this meant "death panels." But, as even liberal commentators pointed out, the proposal unquestionably did have coercive overtones wildly inappropriate in this context.
Something similar can be said of the scheme to send nurses into the homes of low-income pregnant women to counsel them about, among other things, "increasing birth intervals between pregnancies." There are several ways to increase those intervals, including abortion. Is that what those nurse-authority figures will talk about?
Or take abortion. The president lately has accused people who say his plan provides for abortion coverage with "bearing false witness." But analysts of the plan repeatedly have shown that it does indeed open the door to abortion, with government helping to pay the cost. That isn’t a matter of opinion or interpretation but objective fact, and it’s Obama who’s doing the fictionalizing here, a circumstance profoundly disturbing in itself.
The abortion lobby has provided negative confirmation of all this by redoubling its efforts to trash prolifers for trying to keep abortion out of health care. Leaving a White House strategy session, Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards said proudly that "PP [Planned Parenthood] supporters are speaking up for reform in the states." Naturally they are: Planned Parenthood is the nation’s largest abortion provider after all, and it knows a potential bonanza when it sees one.
There is, however, another, still more basic problem with the quality and candor of presidential communication on the abortion issue. Obama has often given assurances that he wants to reduce the number of abortions. That worthy intention was a major element of his commencement address at Notre Dame last spring, and his Catholic apologists have repeated it time and time again.
Unfortunately, everything the president has done with regard to abortion up to now has the effect of increasing the number of abortions, not reducing it. That includes his steps to restore funding to groups involved in abortion overseas and to resume tax-paid abortions in the District of Columbia — and now his health plan.
Would Obama care to say something about that? With good reason, Americans have gotten tired of having presidents play fast and loose with facts. As things now stand, the Great Communicator in the White House would inspire more confidence — on health care and much else — if his words consistently reflected reality.