How Obama Broke His Promise on Individual Mandates

Was it a change of heart or a political calculation that led him to disavow the staunch opposition he voiced to requiring insurance purchases in 2008?

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Candidate Obama sang a different tune on individual mandates during presidential debates against Hillary Clinton in 2008. (Reuters)

Had President Obama kept his word to the American people, Thursday's ground-breaking Supreme Court ruling that upheld the individual mandate portion of the Affordable Care Act, giving the president a political victory of historic significance, never would have happened. What the court upheld -- a tax disguised as a mandate -- is a beast made up of two specific policies, both of which Obama at one time opposed.

Let's go back to 2007, when then-Senator Barack Obama had been a presidential candidate for only about six weeks. In March, Obama spoke at a Service Employees International Union health-care forum in Las Vegas. A 23-year-old woman asked for details of his health-care plan. He did not have any. No details, no plan. But, he said, he had a principle: "Number one, we're going to have to make sure that everybody is in."

Two months later he released his plan. There was no individual mandate, as in John Edwards' plan, and Obama focused primarily on price, not coverage. By design, he had not included everyone, as he said in Las Vegas he would. That did not stop him from claiming that he included everyone, but the claim was debunked by Politifact, Factcheck.org, and others, including his rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination.

That September, Hillary Clinton announced a plan that did put "everybody in." As the Associated Press reported in its lede, "Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's sweeping health-care proposal, which she plans to unveil today, would require every American to carry health insurance and offer federal subsidies to help reduce the cost of coverage." It was Clinton and Edwards against Obama on the propriety of the state forcing people to buy health insurance.

In the Jan. 21, 2008, presidential primary debate in South Carolina, Edwards criticized Obama's plan for its lack of a mandate. Obama responded, "A mandate means that in some fashion, everybody will be forced to buy health insurance." Instead of going that route, his plan, he said, "emphasizes lowering costs."

Obama held that position throughout the campaign. Elect Hillary, he said, and the government will compel you to buy health insurance. Elect me, and I'll give you lower costs and let you keep your freedom.

One Obama TV ad drove the point home: "Hillary Clinton's attacking, but what's she not telling you about her health care plan? It forces everyone to buy insurance, even if you can't afford it, and you pay a penalty if you don't."

The American people voted for a candidate who strongly opposed an individual mandate, but got a president who strongly favored one.

Obama's strong objection to the government forcing people to buy insurance in order to get to universal coverage vanished six months into his presidency. In July of 2009, he came out in favor of a mandate, claiming that he had changed his mind.

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Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader.

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