We teach our kids two things about honesty: One, that “honesty is the best policy,” which means that, ultimately, it’s in one’s interest to be honest. An honest reputation is good for business, telling the truth will keep you out of trouble, and so on.
Parents who aim even higher teach a second, deeper lesson -- that being honest is simply the right thing to do, whether it’s in one’s interest or not.
With the recent revelations of his false promises about his health care plan, President Barack Obama has introduced a third -- and problematic -- lesson on honesty: Sometimes, it’s possible that dishonesty could be the best policy.
Before you gag on that statement, consider the mindset of a president who has a staggering ambition and only a few short years to impact the world.
The biggest, most dramatic change he seeks is something no other president has been able to accomplish: Bringing universal health care to America.
His problem is that, in the midst of a stagnating economy, most of the country did not embrace his controversial plan, which aimed to take over almost a fifth of the economy and add a huge layer of government spending and bureaucracy.
With votes tight in Congress and his plan in jeopardy, the president made a fateful decision: He would say whatever he had to say to push his plan through, even things he knew were not exactly true.
Like, for example, this juicy and memorable promise: “If you like your health care plan, you’ll be able to keep your health care plan. Period. No one will take it away, no matter what.”
“This is a lie,” wrote Michael Cohen of the New York Daily News, “that is today causing the President no end of political headaches.”
He repeated it not once, but 34 times, according to the fact-checking site PolitiFact. If you’re among the millions of Americans today who are or will be forced to look for new plans and new doctors, you have every right to feel cheated and deceived.
Now, why would a president so concerned with his legacy do such a self-destructive thing? I see only one reason: Because, in his mind, it was worth it.
Since telling the truth might have put his plan in peril, he chose not to. He’s hardly the first politician, of course, to play with the truth, but for a president who campaigned on “transparency” and changing Washington’s ways, Obama’s record on this score is especially troublesome.
In fact, although it’s rarely been this blatant, Obama has had a pattern of evading the truth. This latest episode may turn out to be the tipping point that will forever hurt his legacy.
“The broken promises, false claims and tortured truths have reached a critical mass now,” Andrew Malcolm writes in Investor’s Business Daily. “Bludgeoned by Benghazi, IRS revelations, FBI probes, NSA disclosures, Fast and Furious, Solyndra, Syria’s slips and now Obamacare’s sticker shock and outright whoppers, more Americans detect the odor of betrayal, however reluctantly.”
Malcolm adds that for the first time, according to Gallup, Obama’s daily job approval has sunk below 40 percent.
If you’re the president, how do you react to this painful loss of credibility?
One way is simply to accept that it’s the price to pay for getting things done. But losing your credibility is an enormous price to pay when you’re the leader of the free world -- even if your intentions are noble.
And there lies the rub: What should a leader do when honesty appears to conflict with noble ambition? When the truth becomes an annoying inconvenience?
President Obama came into office with a laptop full of dreams and a track record of great speeches. When the truth became too inconvenient, as with his health care plan, he didn’t trust that the American people could handle it. Instead, he placed his trust in what Charles Krauthammer calls his “rather bizarre belief in the unlimited power of speech.”
When his bait-and-switch eloquence finally caught up with him, his speech met the limit of its power. Even his forced and belated “apology,” which liberal writer John Dickerson of Slate called “too little, too late,” failed to take personal responsibility for blatantly false statements.
Great leaders level with the people, even when it’s not popular. Early on, Obama could have treated us like adults and told us: “Yes, this plan will cause short-term disruptions, cancellations and, in some cases, even higher premiums. So, I will be asking many of you to sacrifice a little for the greater good of our great country, for a more humane future where no sick person will ever be left behind.”
By failing to level with us in this way, Obama has made his messy, fragile and divisive health care plan that much messier-- and bought himself little forgiveness. In any event, if his implicit message is that it’s OK to lie to get things done, then we deserve better.
We already live in a generation saturated by marketing hucksters who tell us only what we want to hear. I suppose it’s natural that politicians—the ultimate hucksters-- would follow suit. But great leaders don’t follow, they lead. They trust the truth. They tell us what we need to hear. They appeal to the better angels of our nature.
Maybe now that our president has been caught red-handed and is suffering the consequences, we can remind our kids that even when it’s not popular, speaking the truth is the right and great thing to do. Period.
David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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