03/30/2012 02:53 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Flip-Flops on the Health Care Mandate Breed Cynicism About Washington

Ever wonder why President Obama hasn't been standing strong and steady on the frontlines defending his controversial health care reform law?

True, most voters still oppose Obamacare , but many do, not because the law goes too far, but because it doesn't go far enough. In fact, some specific aspects of the law -- including mandatory coverage regardless of "pre-existing" medical conditions -- are immensely popular. As stand-alone legislation they would surely enjoy popular backing.

So, why hasn't Obama weighed in to support this not-so-silent majority?

Understandably, perhaps, Obama prefers to keep the focus on the economy, which is clearly improving, and finally earning him kudos from leading economists, to say nothing of many voters. Why get "off-message" - by returning to one of the country's most divisive first-term debates?

Besides, early reports seemed to suggest that the Supreme Court was likely to uphold significant portions of the law, and it might appear unseemly for one branch of government -- the Executive -- to be publicly speaking out while another branch -- the Judiciary -- was attending to its constitutional duties.

But there's another more embarrassing reason for the President's silence: Obama himself once staunchly opposed the "individual mandate," the aspect of Obamacare that most rankles American voters, and the one most likely to decide its legal fate.

In fact, during the length of the 2008 campaign, Obama tried repeatedly to differentiate himself from his opponents John Edwards and Hillary Clinton on precisely this issue. Edwards and Clinton made much the same argument in defense of the mandate that Obama's own solicitor general made just the other day. But Obama, during the campaign, was fiercely opposed, suggesting that a mandate would set a dangerous policy precedent, and that insurance for the poor could and should be "subsidized."

It's worth reviewing what Obama said on numerous occasions during the campaign to see just how adamant he was on this point (see video below). Obama was especially upset that individuals might not only be mandated to purchase insurance, but would be fined if they didn't -- a key issue now being discussed by the Supreme Court. He also suggested that many uninsured people who were too poor to buy mandated insurance wouldn't be able to afford the fine for not doing so, either. Others who could afford the fine would simply agree to pay the fine and forgo getting covered, defeating the goal of ensuring universal coverage.

All of this raises the question as to why Obama changed his mind after taking office. Some observers have suggested that incoming HHS secretary Thomas Daschle singlehandedly convinced Obama of the wisdom of the mandate. But revisiting Daschle's role in Obama's decison-making would only provide yet another source of public embarrassment. Daschle, the former Senate majority leader defeated for re-election in 2004, spent the next five years in the proverbial "revolving door," emerging as one of the most influential Washington lobbyists for pharmaceutical companies and health insurance industries. That's right, the very industries that stand to gain the most if millions of uninsured consumers are forced to purchase health care, guaranteeing the industry an expanded market base -- and enormous new profits.

But the irony doesn't stop there, really. If Obama-the-candidate was staunchly against the mandate before the realities of corporate dominance of American politics soon convinced him to change his mind, what happened on the Republican side? Precisely the opposite "transformation." Both Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, who now rail against Obamacare as an unconscionable "Big Government" intrusion, once supported the individual mandate without objection. So did the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think-tank started with funding from beer magnate Adolph Coors that provides daily policy fodder to Republicans in Congress and once served as a key prop for the Reagan White House.

Heritage jock Stuart Butler, a Brit and long-time Margaret Thatcher fan, says he studied the mandate issue further and that Heritage now opposes the idea, even filing a brief last year supporting the lawsuits filed in federal court. Gingrich confessed in one of the early GOP debates that he, too, once supported the individual mandate, largely because Heritage did. "Everybody on the right did," Gingrich noted. (He later claimed that he supported the mandate simply as a 1993 "tactical maneuver" against "Hillary Care," a claim belied by his public statements he subsequently made on the record). In any event, apparently Gingrich, too, now sees the error of his ways.

Obama, of course, is now fully in step with the insurance and drug companies that strongly backed him in 2008 and who've already received preferential treatment under ObamaCare. But like Democrat John Kerry on Iraq in 2004, he's also left in the uncomfortable position of having been "against the health mandate before he was for it." As for the right, well, no one really supposes that their current opposition to the mandate is a slam on the private health care industry. Gingrich has gone to bat for the pharmaceutical companies in the past, and it's pretty clear that if Romney and the rest of the GOP had their way the entire national health care system would likely be privatized.

Maybe Obama should have stuck to his guns all along. His instincts, in retrospect, seem to have been solid, in fact. But it's too late now. If the Court, as expected, does overturn the mandate, the big victor will be the Tea Party, which first burst on the scene after it became clear that Obama intended to ram Obamacare -- and the mandate -- down the country's throats, super-majority or not. And who knows, the ensuing political earthquake could well upend the GOP race also, damaging the President and Romney both, while breathing new life into the campaign of Rick Santorum, who may be the only man in the race who can rightly claim to have never flip-flopped on health care.

Is it any wonder that three years into Obama's first term, so many ordinary voters are still so cynical about Washington?