President Obama’s New Job: Selling Insurance

How you look at things.
Oct. 21 2013 4:38 PM

Barack Obama, Insurance Salesman

The president peddles health insurance—and pounds the GOP.

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President Obama defending the Affordable Care Act in the White House Rose Garden, Oct. 21, 2013.

Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

President Obama came to the White House Rose Garden this morning to defend the beleaguered Affordable Care Act. After weeks of disgust with the law’s malfunctioning website, the president apologized and promised that the “kinks” would be fixed. But Obama also went on the offensive, delivering three messages.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

1. Buy it! We’ve all seen politicians sell ideas. But this is the first time I’ve seen a president, with all his energy, literally sell a product. In his Rose Garden remarks, Obama didn’t address us as citizens or voters. He spoke to us as consumers.

Eight times, Obama referred to the “product” he was selling: health insurance through the ACA’s exchanges. “The product is good. The health insurance that’s being provided is good,” he told us. Seven times, he touted its “quality.” Eleven times (not counting his 20 references to the ACA), he called it “affordable.” He didn’t just praise it; he urged us to buy it. Twice, he insisted, “It will save you money.” Four times, he called it a “good deal.” He plugged the URL, repeated the 800 phone number twice, and predicted that the phone lines would soon be flooded. He suggested that buying insurance through the ACA was better than spending your money on a “Playstation or flat-screen TVs,” since those products might sell out, whereas the exchanges would guarantee availability and pricing to all comers. Obamacare was such a boon, the president boasted, that the Web site’s glitches were killing him: “Because the product is good, I want the cash registers to work. I want the checkout lines to be smooth. So I want people to be able to get this great product.”

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2. Free enterprise. Republicans have dampened Obamacare’s popularity by portraying it as big-government socialism. Obama wants to undo that impression. In today’s remarks, he referred three times to choice, four times to competition, and 17 times to “marketplaces” opened by the ACA. “What we’ve done is essentially created competition where there wasn’t competition before,” the president explained. “Insurers have created new health care plans with more choices to be made available through these marketplaces. And as a result of this choice and this competition, prices have come down.” By leaning hard on the language of free enterprise, Obama aims to undercut conservative opposition and public mistrust.

3. Obstructionism. The first thing Obama did today, after thanking the citizen-prop who introduced him, was to remind everyone of what Republicans did in the first half of this month: “About three weeks ago, as the federal government shut down, the Affordable Care Act’s health insurance marketplaces opened for business.” A few minutes later, he took an oblique shot at Republican governors who have resisted implementation of the ACA: “In states where governors and legislatures have wisely allowed it, the Affordable Care Act provides the opportunity for many Americans to get covered under Medicaid.” Toward the end, he made his partisan adversary more explicit:

I recognize that the Republican Party has made blocking the Affordable Care Act its signature policy idea. Sometimes it seems to be the one thing that unifies the party these days. In fact, they were willing to shut down the government and potentially harm the global economy to try to get it repealed. And I’m sure that, given the problems with the Web site so far, they’re going to be looking to go after it even harder. … It’s time for folks to stop rooting for its failure, because hard-working middle-class families are rooting for its success.

Blocking affordable health care. Denying coverage under Medicaid. Shutting down the government. Harming the economy. That’s an all-out indictment of the opposition party. Even Republican criticism of the Web site debacle—which everyone acknowledges—has become, in Obama’s words, “rooting for failure” at the expense of middle-class families. Obama may not win this fight. But he has certainly entered it swinging.

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