The Monday morning column from D.C.:
Danger for the White House: Collapse of Public Trust
By Clark S. Judge, managing director, White House Writers Group and former Special Assistant and Speechwriter to President Reagan
Washington is abuzz over the latest pronouncement from Charlie Cook, celebrated editor of the Cook Political Report.
Last week, Mr. Cook announced in his online newsletter that polling data “confirm anecdotal evidence, and our own view, that the [political] situation this summer has slipped completely out of control for President Obama and Congressional Democrats.” Poll after poll, he noted, shows the President’s approval rating at levels that are astonishingly low, considering the newness of his administration and the immense victory he and his party won just ten months ago.
But Mr. Cook and this city are a step behind. The great danger for Team Obama is no longer dismal polling numbers. Washington is only now acknowledging what should have been evident for weeks, that the President’s continued championing of the deeply unpopular health care overhaul is dragging down opinion about him and how he is handling his job. No, the new, new danger is that Mr. Obama could be moving towards a much more profound setback-a collapse of public trust in his Administration.[# More #]
The misstep this time (there have been so many in the last three months) came as the White House pivoted away from the “public option” in it health care take overhaul package. The President’s men talked about replacing the dropped plan with medical cooperatives. Totally different from the old “public option”, they assured the country.
Within an afternoon, analysts had caught on that the new cooperatives were the public option in disguise. Washington’s Golden Rule is, he who has the gold makes the rules. The coops would be public entities that would control Federal health care dollars just the way the public option had been intended to do. As columnist Rich Lowry wrote about this and similar health overhaul ruses, “How stupid do they think we are?”
This subterfuge came on the heels of the Administration trying to paint critics of its health plan as ideologues and ignoramuses. But again and again, respected public intellectuals endorsed the charges of the supposedly unlettered, unwashed ideologues showing up at congressional town hall meetings.
For example, the Administration has insisted that health care overhaul has nothing to do with rationing. But then, even as the media focused on former Alaska governor Sarah Palin’s “death panel” charges, with Administration supporters crying foul, Martin Feldstein wrote in last Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal that “ObamaCare is all about rationing.” Dr. Feldstein is many things: Harvard professor of economics, former chair of the Council of Economic Advisors, president emeritus of the National Bureau of Economic Research. Unlettered, unwashed and ideological are not among them.
Feldstein wasn’t alone. A few days before, Nobel economics laureate Gary Becker had argued on line of the public option, “the experiences of other government-run operations strongly indicate that whatever Congress says in these bills, such an option will cause far more harm than good.”
And widely respected jurist and economist Richard Posner concluded in a blog he shares with Becker that “the only serious way in which the Administration [in its plan] can imagine limiting the cost increase… is by curtailing treatment.”
But the American people didn’t need to hear from Harvard professors, celebrated jurists and Nobel Prize winners to know that health overhaul critics were not a bunch of yahoos. If my own personal sampling is at all representative, family physicians around the nation are grabbing anyone who will listen and warning that the President’s program would be a disaster for patients. By the way, I didn’t actually call up doctors and ask their opinions. Every physician I have encountered at social gatherings or on the street in recent weeks has been ready with a list of warnings. Other than medical academics and health care bureaucrats, it seems, doctors all over the nation are pressing on friends, patients, anyone who will listen, that the President’s program is bad news.
The problem for the White House is that in both public and private ways, the public is seeing the efforts to dismiss and trivialize health care overhaul’s critics as fraudulent. Then, too, they are seeing, over and over, the outlines of an alternative plan, even as the White House has tried to suggest that there is no true alternative.
The plan’s particulars have appeared over an over, coming from sources as diverse as intellectuals like Becker and Posner and business leaders like Whole Food’s John Mackey (in another widely praised Wall Street Journal piece, They include giving to individuals the same tax breaks for health spending that corporations have so people can buy their own insurance if they wish without prohibitive tax penalties; expanded use of health savings accounts so people can pay directly for regular care while buying insurance for major and unexpected events; allowing health plans that may be sold in one state to be sold in all, so that we have a truly national market in health insurance.
It goes back to the Golden Rule. Under the current plan, the answer to “who has the gold, who makes the rules,” is the government. Under the alternative, it is the people.
But the immediate political problem for Mr. Obama and his colleagues is not the shooting down of charges and caricatures they have launched against their critics, nor the growing awareness of a good alternative to their bad plan. It is the building perception that the President and his colleagues have regularly dissembled and (even worse) that in pushing ahead with an unpopular plan they are advancing another agenda about which they have not been candid.
Mr. Obama entered office enjoying tremendous public trust. Today, seven months into his presidency, he is in danger of squandering that trust.