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?

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,, 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.

Either Obama was suddenly persuaded that such a sweeping use of government power was necessary, or he had believed it all along and only took the other side because it would position him better politically. Either way, the American people voted for a candidate who strongly opposed an individual mandate, but got a president who strongly favored one and, it turned out, would make enacting health-coverage reforms that included a mandate his top legislative goal.

Had Obama maintained his stated opposition to a mandate, we would not have one today. But thanks to his post-election reversal from strong opponent of mandates to a passionate advocate of them, a policy the American people do not support now has been imposed upon them. Not incidentally, the same scenario played out in the Supreme Court, resulting in the mandate being upheld.

During debate on the Affordable Care Act, Republicans tried to call the mandate's penalty provision a tax. The bill stated (and the law now states) that those who do not buy health insurance must pay a "penalty" to the IRS. When Republicans labeled it a tax, Obama strongly objected.

In a famous 2009 interview with George Stephanopoulos, Obama said: "For us to say that you've got to take a responsibility to get health insurance, is absolutely not a tax increase. What's it's saying is that we're not going to have other people carrying your burdens for you."

A White House memo of talking points on the act stated with perfect clarity, "what President Obama is proposing is not a tax, but a requirement to comply with the law." That memo is still on the White House website.

But after the law was challenged in court, the administration shifted arguments. Suddenly, the mandate was a tax. The administration argued both that it was a mandate and that it was a tax, hoping that if the courts rejected one argument they would uphold the other. It was a strategy that exposed the administration as once again switching positions entirely after the voting was done.

And it worked. On Thursday the Supreme Court struck down the argument under which the mandate passed Congress, and upheld the argument made exclusively in court after the voting. Though the people did not want a mandate, did not vote for a mandate, and have a Constitution that the high court ruled forbids a health-care mandate -- but not a new health-care tax -- many will now have to buy a product they don't want or pay a penalty to the Internal Revenue Service. Democrats are hailing the ruling as a victory for the president. But it would never have been possible if he had stuck to the positions he said he believed in.