What’s the political word of the year? For months journalists couldn’t settle on how to describe the rollout of ObamaCare. “Failed,” disastrous,” “unsuccessful.” In the past few weeks they’ve settled on “botched.” References to the botched rollout have appeared in this paper, The Hill, NBC, Fox, NPR, the New Republic, the Washington Post and other media outlets.
* * *The sentence of the year is very famous. “If you like your health-care plan, you can keep it,” which President Obama promised from the beginning of his health bill straight through to the time before its unveiling. It was a lie and has been called lie of the year.
Its variations—if you like your doctor you can keep your doctor, etc.—also turn out to be untrue. With millions thrown off their health-care coverage and millions more braced to be thrown off, the president’s promises leave him looking like Dan Aykroyd in the old Saturday Night Live skit where the sleazy toy manufacturer is confronted by a consumer reporter played by Candice Bergen.
She accuses him of selling dangerous Christmas gifts for children, such as “General Tron’s Secret Police Confession Kit” and “Doggy Dentist.” But the worst product, she tells him, is a bag of glass. “We’re just packaging what the kids want,” says Aykroyd. “We put a label on every bag that says, ‘Kid, be careful, broken glass!'”
That’s how ObamaCare looks, like the bag of broken glass.
The president’s statement was simple, clear, understood—meaning it was memorable. Pretty much anyone hearing the promise replayed today would know right away who said it and what it referred to. For all his much vaunted excellence as a speaker, Mr. Obama has never had a famous phrase that encapsulated his leadership—no “evil empire” or “Ask not,” or “We have nothing to fear.”
Now he does. And it encapsulates more than he would have wished.
Could he get himself a new and happier one? Yes. Something like, “Stubbornness is never a good grounding for policy. Today I am ordering the federal government to delay implementation of ObamaCare for one year. I mean to work with Republicans on Capitol Hill to turn around what doesn’t work. I am not giving up and not giving in; we are, however, recognizing and accepting reality. The American people should not be asked to pay the price in anxiety for mistakes that have been made along the way. I am frankly asking for constructive cooperation from my Republican friends. It would be a most unkind party that wouldn’t pitch in at a moment like this.”
Over to you, Mr. Speaker, and Merry Christmas.
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There are also the words this year that were most conspicuous by their absence. They’re the words we don’t use when we talk about health care. Actually we don’t talk much about health care, we talk about health insurance. Fox News’s Jim Pinkerton says the absent words in the ongoing debate are “medicine,” “research” and “cure.” Do you want to make a dent in future health-care costs? Cure Alzheimers. That’s where the cost will be as the health of the baby boomers falters. Insurance isn’t the key. It was never the key. It’s a product. Cure and care are the words of the future.
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Some nice, plain words came from Delta Air Lines.
There aren’t really a lot of nice things about flying. It’s scary, germy, full of delays. They don’t clean the planes as they once did—the tray is not clean and as you open it and see the coke and coffee marks, you wonder if it was used on the last flight by a Senegalese tourist with typhus.
The words you always hear are “We have a full flight today,” and they do, which is bad news because of America’s Personal Physical Boundary Crisis. Our countrymen increasingly lack a sense of where their physical space ends and yours begins. The young, blond Viking-looking woman with the big purse and the jangly bracelets, waving her arms and yelling to her friends across the aisle; the big, wide man who takes not only the arm rest when you’re in the middle seat but the shoulder and leg space . . .
Imagine these people with phones. It will be hell. Their voices will have no boundaries. And they are precisely the people who’ll make the most calls, because they understand their urgent need to chatter is more important than your hope for quiet.
There will be the moment when softly and with a smile, you ask if he could lower his voice just a bit. He will not. He’s on with the office, it’s very important. So after half an hour you’ll gesture to the stewardess, and she’ll say something to the man, and he’ll snap the phone shut but he’s resentful, and you have to sit next to angry, no-boundaries man for another four hours . . .
And so the nice words of 2013 are not “We’re over Kansas or something, listen to what happened on the Green case.” The nice words came from Delta Air Lines CEO Richard Anderson. If the airlines are cleared by the federal government for cellphone use, Delta will not allow it. In a survey they did last year “a clear majority” of customers said cellphones onboard “would detract from—not enhance—their experience.” Flight crews agreed—cellphones will cause passenger discord and detract from safety messages.
God bless Delta Air Lines, and Southwest Airlines has also indicated it may make a similar decision.
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The most arresting words heard this year? A billionaire of New York, in conversation: “I hate it when the market goes up. Every time I hear the stock market went up I know the guillotines are coming closer.” This was interesting in part because the speaker has a lot of money in the market. But he meant it. He is self-made, broadly accomplished, a thinker on politics, and for a moment he was sharing the innards of his mind. His biggest concern is the great and growing distance between the economically successful and those who have not or cannot begin to climb. The division has become too extreme, too dramatic, and static. He fears it will eventually tear the country apart and give rise to policies that are bitter and punishing, not helpful and broadening.
This year I came to understand, at meetings and symposia, that this has become an ongoing preoccupation of the wealthy. They are not oblivious, they are concerned. And though they give away hundreds of millions of dollars to charities, schools and scholarships, they don’t know what can be done to turn the overall economic picture around. Globalization isn’t leaving, industrial manufacturing isn’t coming back as it was, technology will continue to give jobs to the educated, and the ever-evolving mischief of men and markets won’t change.
They are worried. They are right to be. They are trying to think it through, trying to find any realistic solutions, and words.