President Obama's approval rating is at or near record lows. His foreign policy has been feckless. And his recent budget proposal was virtually ignored because his domestic agenda is going nowhere in Congress. So with 2014 looking like an increasingly grim year for Democrats seeking re-election, the role of the most powerful leader of the free world has been reduced to that of an insurance salesman.
In the final weeks before the March 31 deadline for individuals to enroll in an insurance plan through his health care program without facing a penalty, Obama is going everywhere and anywhere to make his pitch. He has started to sound like an overeager junior salesman -- the type who watches Alec Baldwin's “always be closing” monologue from “Glengarry Glen Ross” every morning to get psyched.
Appearing on an online video comedy skit with “Hangover” co-star Zach Galifianakis, Obama urged Americans to visit healthcare.gov “or call 1-800-318-2596,” where, “they can get coverage all for what it costs to pay your cell phone bill.”
During an appearance on Spanish-language television, Obama was asked to respond to a viewer who said he struggled to find affordable health care options for his family through the law.
“Now there may be some circumstances where somebody is making $40,000, $50,000 a year, they've got a health insurance option that — you know, costs $300 a month for their family,” Obama replied. “And they may say, ‘You know, with all the bills that I've got, that's too tight.’ I guess what I would say is, if you looked at that person's budget, and you looked at their cable bill, their telephone — their cell phone bill — other things that they're spending on, it may turn out that it's just they haven't prioritized health care because right now everybody's healthy.”
He later added that if something happens to the viewer or his family, “he will wish that he had paid that $300 a month.”
The spectacle of the president of the United States turning into a pitchman for multibillion-dollar publicly traded insurance companies is jarring. It also represents quite a journey for Obama, who once described himself as a "proponent" of single-payer health care, which largely eliminates for-profit insurers.
But Obama finds himself in this situation due to a combination of his own choices and political constraints. He rejected market-based reforms of the health care system (such as allowing the purchase of insurance across state lines and ending the discrimination in the tax code against individuals buying insurance on their own) that would have increased competition for insurance and brought down premiums.
At the same time, he wasn’t willing to take on the insurance industry and support a much more disruptive single-payer system. His olive branch to the left — a government-run health insurance option to be sold on the exchanges along with privately administered plans — couldn’t pass through the Senate even with Democrats controlling 60 votes.
So now, the success of his pet project hinges on whether private insurers can sign up a critical mass of Americans (and enough young and healthy Americans) to make the program’s insurance exchanges viable in 50 states plus the District of Columbia.
Thus far, the program is tracking well below expectations.
As of the end of February, the Department of Health and Human Services reported, just 4.2 million Americans had signed up for insurance through one of the exchanges. But that number counts anybody who has selected a plan as having enrolled, regardless of whether they have paid.
Leading health insurers told Politico that between 15 percent to 20 percent of those who signed up through the exchanges haven't paid their first month's premiums. Industry consultant Bob Laszewski has said that if those who didn't pay their second month's premiums are added, non-payers could represent a quarter of claimed enrollments -- putting the actual number just above 3 million.
Either way, the number is far off of original projections of 5.7 million enrollments through February and 7 million by the end of March. Furthermore, participation of younger Americans, who administration officials once said had to reach about 40 percent of total enrollments, were at 25 percent.
No wonder Obama has become a desperate salesman.