How many times have you heard that the President of the United State “lied” to the American people when he said “If you like the policy you have, you can keep it?” Even some liberals have swallowed this Republican talking point.
In December, Politifact, the Tampa Times Pulitzer-prize-winning online fact-checker, went so far as to name Obama’s statement “the lie of the year.”
Since then, the story has generated headlines like this one: ““Reporter Asks Obama, “What’s It Like to Be Called Liar of the Year?”
What most people don’t recall is that in 2008 m when President Obama first uttered those fateful words, Politifact—the very same fact-checking organization– graded his statement as “True.”
What is going on here?
Context: Who Was Obama’s Audience?
It should come as no surprise that Obamacare’s opponents ripped the president’s original statement out of context. This was easy to do because so few people remember the third Obama/McCain debate that took place in Hempstead, New York, on Oct. 15, 2008. During this debate then-Senator Obama uttered the words that would haunt him: “you can keep your plan.”
A transcript of the debate reveals what he meant. In response to a question from the debate’s moderator, Obama laid out a thumbnail sketch of healthcare reform: “Here’s what my plan does. If you have health insurance, then you don’t have to do anything. If you’ve got health insurance through your employer, you can keep your health insurance, keep your choice of doctor, keep your plan.”
Obama had said something similar in his second debate with McCain a week earlier, in Nashville Tennessee. “If you’ve got health care already, and probably the majority of you do, then you can keep your plan if you are satisfied with it. You can keep your choice of doctor.”
Few remember that when Obama assured Americans that the Affordable Care Act would not interfere with the benefits they had, he was addressing “the majority” of insured Americans–people who worked for large companies that offered comprehensive coverage. More than two-thirds of the American work-force is employed by firms with more than 100 workers, and at the time, 99% of large companies offered health benefits. He was not talking to the 5% of Americans who purchased their own coverage in the individual market, or the 17% who were covered by a small firm. (Only 35% of the U.S. work-force is employed by small companies and less than half of those firms offer health insurance.)
Context: What Was the Issue Obama and McCain Were Addressing?
In 2008 when Americans who had good health benefits at work heard the phrase “healthcare reform,” many worried that this would mean a “government takeover” that would eliminate their employer-sponsored plans. In short, they feared a single-payer system. Obama was trying to reassure them that this wouldn’t happen.
At the time, Politifact understood that this was the concern that Obama was addressing. Here is what Politifact’s Angie Holan wrote in October of 2008:
“Obama is accurately describing his health care plan here. He advocates a program that seeks to build on the current system, rather than dismantling it and starting over. People who want to keep their current insurance should be able to do that under Obama’s plan. His description of his plan is accurate, and we rate his statement True.”