Israelis may be forgiven for paying scant attention to America’s Obamacare debacle and political fallout. Surely, this is one issue which is an entirely domestic matter for the United States. But Israel and other American allies would do well to pay closer attention. There are lessons to be learned pertaining to American foreign policy from this still-unfolding episode.
The Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare, was the cornerstone of President Obama’s domestic policy agenda. Motivated by some 30 million Americans without health insurance, Obama aimed for the impossible: to transform and regulate health coverage for the entire country by mandating additional benefits for everyone, extending coverage to those 30 million, plus requiring insurers to cover even the highest-risk, most expensive customers—all while cutting the cost of insurance premiums, and not increasing the deficit.
Not one to be bound by mere laws of supply and demand, President Obama successfully sold his immensely complicated plan with bold, straightforward promises: “If you like your doctor, you will be able to keep your doctor, period. If you like your health-care plan, you will be able to keep your health-care plan, period.” “We will start by lowering the average premium by $2,500 per year.” He repeated those promises dozens of times.
Well. Obamacare rolled out in October. Immediately, millions of Americans who had previously been adequately insured discovered their policies cancelled for not covering a rich new assortment of Obama-mandated benefits they didn’t need, such as maternity care even for men or those beyond childbearing years. For each new Obamacare enrollee, over 100 people had their existing insurance cancelled. Premiums exploded, up an average of 50% for most individuals—for new policies limiting customer access to their preferred hospitals and doctors. Plus, it now turns out, the administration had already anticipated as far back as 2010 that 90 million Americans would ultimately have their policies cancelled and be forced into government exchanges. So much for those Obama promises.
Obama’s bogus pledge to the public–“If you like your health plan, you can keep your health plan”– has become a late-night TV punchline, akin to President Nixon’s “I am not a crook” and President Clinton’s “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” Obama’s poll numbers are tanking, and his own party, panicky about 2014 Congressional elections, seems on the verge of open revolt.
So, what does any of this have to do with Israel?
Plenty. Israel finds itself at odds with the Obama administration in terms of pressure for greater concessions to the Palestinians—concessions Israel deems dangerous. In addition, the administration is pushing Israel to stop trying to scuttle a proposed deal with Iran that leaves the mullahs with both significant sanctions relief and nuclear capability. Having verbally committed to preventing the Islamic Republic from going nuclear and to “having Israel’s back”, the administration’s message to Israel is: Trust us.
Israel’s message to the administration should be: No thanks. Nowhere more than in the realm of foreign policy is credibility necessary for success. Whether in threatening adversaries or persuading allies to bend to America’s wishes, American commitments are only as meaningful as they are credible.
Obama’s credibility is in tatters. Polls show Americans trust him less than ever, with over half saying the President knew he was lying when making his Obamacare promises. Even his usually reliable media cheering section is featuring articles asking flat out whether the President has any credibility left.
The Obama administration’s credibility problem extends beyond just domestic policy. An administration which so easily lies to its own citizens to achieve domestic political ends cannot be trusted to act faithfully towards the citizens of other countries. The world has already witnessed the President fold when challenged on one “red line”—that of Syrian use of chemical weapons. No longer is the administration entitled to any benefit of the doubt.
Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry briefed Congress on the Iranian nuclear negotiations, specifically telling lawmakers to ignore Israeli concerns urgently transmitted to Capitol Hill. Not only was the administration’s dovish approach rejected, it was mocked by Senators echoing Israel’s assessment that Obama’s approach amounts to $40 billion of sanctions relief in exchange for a 24-day delay in Iran’s nuclear program. The Congressional reaction made clear that Israel has a lot more credibility than the Obama administration in this matter.
Every so often, we re-learn a political lesson: character matters. In a President, character and credibility arguably count more than any single policy. Leadership, both domestic and international, is impossible without integrity and credibility because it is impossible without public trust. Once that public trust is gone, we’re left with nothing more than say-anything cheap political expediency.
Presidential credibility, once damaged, is resistant to restoration. It becomes increasingly difficult to persuade the public on any policy once people stop believing you. Or listening altogether.
And that is where we find ourselves. Whatever Israel’s and other American allies’ suspicions about Obama’s credibility before, they should only be deepened by the Obamacare saga.
Abe Katsman is an American lawyer and political commentator living in Israel. More of his work can be found at abekatsman.com.