One of the key moments of President Obama’s Tuesday speech before an Associated Press luncheon came at the end, when he urged reporters not to cast partisan disagreements about the key issues of the day — health care, the environment, the role of the federal government — as a product of equal intransigence on both sides. Republicans, he noted, have abandoned their previous support for Obama initiatives — from transportation funding, to cap and trade, to the health care reforms that comprise ‘Obamacare’ — many of which emerged as conservative alternatives to more liberal policies.
His hosts weren’t listening — and as a result they’ve made Obama’s points about Republicans and the media for him.
“[I]f Republicans have moved to the right on health care, it’s also true that Obama has moved to the left,” reads an AP wrap on the Obama speech. “He strenuously opposed a mandate forcing people to obtain health insurance until he won office and changed his mind.”
It’s true that Obama campaigned against an individual mandate in 2008, only to embrace it — however reluctantly — after he became president. But to say that constitutes a move to the left betrays a lack of understanding about the origins and purpose of the individual mandate, and of Obama’s broader evolution on health care reform.
In the early aughts, as a member of the Illinois state Senate, Obama strongly supported a single-payer health care system.
Over the years, that position became more tempered by political realities, and by the 2008 Democratic primary, he had embraced the basic framework of what eventually became “Obamacare,” with two glaring exceptions: He supported a public option, and he opposed an individual mandate — the latter of which was crucial to the success of “Romneycare” in Massachusetts.
Obama was criticized by a mix of liberal and conservative technocrats and industry stakeholders for opposing the mandate. By embracing it as president, while dropping the public option, he was arguably moving further right still from his past support for single-payer. As Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) — then the top Republican on the committee that drafted the health care law — said before health care reform turned toxic on the right, “I believe that there is a bipartisan consensus to have individual mandates.”
As Obama lurched toward Massachusetts’ plan as a potential framework for bipartisan consensus, Republicans quickly abandoned the pretense of supporting the principle of universal health care of any kind.
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at email@example.com.