The New York Times has published a story with an accompanying chart suggesting that while President Trump has told 103 falsehoods during his first 10 months in office, President Barack Obama told just 18 throughout his entire presidency. It was a chart clearly designed to be spread widely on social media, given that it confirms all the priors of the publication's readership. But it was also absurdly charitable to Obama. In fact, an additional analysis of Obama's public statements, detailed below, finds that in fact, Obama had told at least 18 falsehoods in selling Obamacare in 2009 alone.
To start, some caveats. I actually would not dispute the broader argument of the New York Times piece. I believe it’s fair to say that Trump is unique in his disregard for the truth, in the casual way in which he blatantly lies, makes wild claims without any evidence, and digs into his lies even when presented with information that clearly contradicts what he is saying. I don’t think it would be very hard to make the case that he is a more blatant liar even when compared to other politicians and former presidents. However, I also think that there’s a way to make this case without covering up so many of the clear falsehoods Obama told.
I’ve spent some time going back to some of the claims Obama made during the Obamacare debate. Now, there are a few things to keep in mind. One is that the Times claimed, “We applied the same conservative standard to Obama and Trump, counting only demonstrably and substantially false statements.” But that is such an arbitrary standard open to debate and interpretation, which is why the whole attempt to quantify "falsehoods" and come up with some sort of comparable standard as if it represents hard numbers, like how much the government spends on a specific program, is flawed.
What I have done below is start by listing 11 claims Obama made in 2009 that were deemed “false” or “mostly false” by PolitiFact and or ruled inaccurate by FactCheck.org. Though I’ve had separate criticisms of those sites, I figured some people wouldn’t want to go on my judgment alone, so I’m including them. I’m sure some people will question whether all of these qualify, but it would be tough to argue that none of the ones listed here qualify as blatantly false. And keep in mind that this analysis only looks at claims about healthcare and only in 2009. The New York Times analysis purports to look at every false claim over the full eight years of his presidency.
11 falsehoods highlighted by PolitiFact and FactCheck.org
1) “If you like your health care plan, you'll be able to keep your health care plan.”
This is the only one on my list that the New York Times actually mentions. However, even in mentioning it, they cover for Obama. The Times article states that “When [prior presidents] became aware that they had been saying something untrue, they stopped doing it. Obama didn’t continue to claim that all Americans would be able to keep their existing health insurance under Obamacare, for example.” But this is not at all the case. Obama started this talking point during his campaign, continued it as he tried to sell Obamacare, and made the claim during his 2012 reelection campaign. It was clearly false that entire time. Though he eventually conceded to NBC’s Chuck Todd, “We weren’t as clear as we needed to be,” that didn’t happen immediately. When stories about plan cancellations mounted in the fall of 2013, his White House first pushed back on the idea that he lied, then Obama lied about the original lie, claiming “what we said was you can keep it if it hasn’t changed since the law passed.” So basically a falsehood he had been telling from his campaign had gone uncorrected until Nov. 2013, toward the end of the fifth year of his presidency, and was only acknowledged once the political price of repeating the lie had exceeded the value of telling the lie. You can watch a video compilation of the times he repeated the lie here.
2) The “average American family is paying thousands” in extra premiums to cover uncompensated care for the uninsured
3) “We spend about $6,000 per person more than any other industrialized nation on Earth”
4) Obama claimed a decision to revoke insurance led to an Illinois man's death
But facts show the man in question did receive treatment and lived for another three years, and the insurance company could not be blamed for his death.
5) "I have not said that I was a single-payer supporter."
Obama made this claim in 2009, but in 2003 he had said, "I happen to be a proponent of a single-payer universal health care program.”
6) "I didn't campaign on a public option."
It was actually included in his campaign healthcare plan.
7) Health insurers are “making record profits, right now."
8) Obama claimed 1980s-era obesity rates would save Medicare $1 trillion.
This was not supported by the data.
9) Obama said preventive care would save money, but the best available evidence showed the contrary.
Early intervention can save money in some individual cases, but when applied across the population, studies have found it generally costs more than it saves.
10) Rising healthcare costs "causes a bankruptcy in America every 30 seconds."
The true figure is much lower.
11) "It’s a plan that incorporates ideas from many of the people in this room tonight – Democrats and Republicans."
GOP amendments that were accepted were either technical or extremely minor.
12) Obamacare “will more than pay for itself.”
Republicans are getting a lot of grief from fact-checkers these days for claiming that their tax cuts will pay for themselves, but in 2009, Obama told the incredible whopper that Obamacare would pay for itself. At an AARP forum, he said of the finances of the legislation, "we're talking about a trillion dollars over 10 years — that's $100 billion a year. About 60 percent of that can be paid for by taking money that's already in the system but isn't working to make you healthier -- that can pay for about 60 percent of it. So really what we're talking about is another $30 billion to $40 billion every year to cover everybody, and we're going to get most of that money back if we're providing more prevention, more wellness, doctors, and hospitals are being reimbursed more intelligently. Over time that money will -- that investment will more than pay for itself." This was and is blatantly false. Let’s put aside the fact that the idea that the law cost $1 trillion over 10 years number was a result of an accounting gimmick that delayed the implementation of the major coverage previsions until after four years, to create the appearance that it cost less under the typical budget window. As noted above, the simple math is that, according to the CBO, even after taking into account Medicare savings, Obamacare is expected to spend $821 billion more on expanding health coverage from 2016 through 2025, after taking into account projected Medicare savings.
13) Obamacare "could save families $2,500 in the coming years -- $2,500 per family."
After citing an agreement with major healthcare industries, Obama said, “Coupled with comprehensive reform, this could result in our nation saving over $2 trillion over the next 10 years, and that could save families $2,500 in the coming years -- $2,500 per family.” It’s not clear exactly how Obama arrived at that number, but by one easy metric, the U.S. spent $8,147 per person on healthcare in 2009 and $10,348 per person in 2016. Judged another way, it increased spending by $821 billion, according to the CBO, even after taking into account the offset savings from the law’s Medicare cuts. Unsubsidized families that have seen their premiums soar certainly haven’t saved $2,500.
14) Obamacare’s individual mandate is not a middle-class tax increase
Obama promised repeatedly that he would never raise taxes on the middle class. When confronted by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in Sept. 2009, he affirmed the promise and said “I absolutely reject that notion” -- i.e. the idea that the mandate is a tax increase. But his administration subsequently argued in the Supreme Court that the mandate was a tax. And according to the CBO, 58 percent of those who paid the mandate penalty in 2015 earned under $50,000 and 86 percent earned under $100,000.
15) “Reducing the waste and inefficiency in Medicare and Medicaid will pay for most of this plan.”
Obama made this statement in his Sept. 2009 speech to a joint session of Congress. In reality, a majority of the plan is paid for by higher taxes, as was the case both at the time it passed and in the present day.
16) “Nobody is talking about cutting Medicare benefits.”
Though the law didn’t change the benefit structure directly, among other changes, it did make changes to the way providers will be paid, which the chief actuary at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services at the time the law passed warned would cause providers to drop out of the system “jeopardizing access to care for beneficiaries.” The number of doctors dropping out of Medicare increased substantially in the years after the law passed, even though the level has not been as massive as some feared at the time.
17) “You would have a lot of choices."
At the AARP forum, Obama said that once legislation passed, "essentially what you would be able to do is you could just go online, you would be able to see a list of participating insurers -- which by the way, is very important, because in most states right now insurance companies are dominated by -- or the insurance market is dominated by just one or two insurers, so you don't have a lot of choices. And this way, you would have a lot of choices." Though it’s true that there was a lot of market concentration in the pre-Obamacare world, the introduction of the law has not made things better, and in some states, has made things worse. In 2013, the year before Obamacare went into effect, on average, states had four insurers with more than 5 percent of the market share -- which was the same as in 2016, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. In some states, things got worse. For instance, before Obamacare, Alaska had five insurers with market shares of over 5 percent, and Wyoming had 4. By 2016, Alaska was down to two and Wyoming was down to one. This does not take into account the wave of insurer exits over the past year and a half. Nor does it consider that under Obamacare, the types of plans that individuals can buy are dictated by Washington, prohibiting young and healthy individuals from choosing relatively inexpensive plans with a narrower collection of benefits.
18) “No federal dollars will be used to fund abortions"
This one is hotly debated, but the facts are that Obamacare provides subsidies for individuals to purchase insurance, and that money can be used to purchase plans that cover abortions. This is among a number of loopholes that allow taxpayer money to finance abortions.