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SPOTLIGHT
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Mr. President, you lied

Published on -11/18/2013, 3:23 PM

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Dear Mr. President:

You lied.

More often than anyone can count you've said some version of the following in defense of the Affordable Care Act: "If you like your health care plan, you'll be able to keep your health-care plan, period."

We learn now that perhaps as many as 2 million Americans cannot, in fact, do that under the new law. It requires that health insurance cover a comprehensive range of benefits, though more modest policies can be grandfathered in, provided those policies have not been significantly changed since the ACA was enacted in 2010. Anyone whose policy fails to meet one of those two criteria must get a new one.

So what you said was incorrect, and that's bad enough. You made matters worse in a Nov. 4 speech in which you claimed you didn't say what you did.

"What we said," you told the audience, "was, you can keep it if it hasn't changed since the law passed." The Pants on Fire rating that you got from PolitiFact was richly deserved.

It is hardly news that presidents lie. Bill Clinton parsed an intransitive verb to hide his dalliance with a White House intern, George W. Bush claimed he never advocated "stay the course" in Iraq, Ronald Reagan swore he never traded weapons for hostages to arm the Contras in Nicaragua, Lyndon Johnson escalated U.S. involvement in Vietnam by claiming American warships had suffered unprovoked attacks in the Gulf of Tonkin, Richard Nixon said, "I'm not a crook."

But surely you understand by now that you are not just another president. You are, rather, the embodiment of a movement, Exhibit A in the argument that a new America is taking shape before our eyes. So, the rules and expectations are different for you. No one who has been buoyed by that movement, no citizen of that new America, wants to see you acting like just another president, any more than anyone wanted to see Jackie Robinson strike out at bat or Neil Armstrong stumble while stepping off the lunar lander.

Is that fair? No. So what?

You are probably familiar with the political axiom that one campaigns in poetry, but governs in prose. That's true enough, ordinarily, something voters understand, if only instinctively. But the byproduct of embodying a movement is that when you promise poetry, people expect a little poetry. This latest episode amounts to torpid prose.

It is worth noting that people maintain a deep reservoir of goodwill toward you, even now. And it says something that even after three years of strident, hypocritical, extreme and often delusional Republican pounding, even after bizarre comparisons with the Third Reich and slavery, even after claims that death panels are coming after Nana, the ACA remains popular with nearly half the American public.

This is something of a political miracle. But you stretch your luck beyond breaking if you think you can continue to defy gravity while absorbing both the wounds Republicans inflict upon you and those you needlessly inflict upon yourself.

The botched rollout of the ACA with its amateur-hour website was bad enough. Now there's this. An observer can only wonder what you were thinking. Did you believe the lie would not be discovered? Did you think the political gain was worth the embarrassment? Did you not know enough about the law to realize this bomb was ticking?

None of those scenarios reflects well upon you.

Thankfully, you have apologized and promised, albeit without specifics, to provide relief for people who now need to buy insurance despite your blanket promises. That needs to happen yesterday. Your legacy teeters here, Mr. President, Jackie Robinson waiting for the pitch, Neil Armstrong poised above lunar soil. Two words of advice:

Do better.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist

for the Miami Herald.

lpitts@miamiherald.com

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