Two stories in the current news bring to mind the sadly familiar question “What did the President know and when did he know it?”
The Merkel phone tapping
The initial documents released by Edward Snowden included evidence of surveillance of other governments at the 2009 G-20 Summit by the NSA and British intelligence. The reaction by other governments was muted, presumably under the view that “everybody does it.” The recent revelation of spying on foreign heads of government, including the president of Brazil and Germany’s Chancellor Merkel, have produced far more negative responses. A few taps too many, one might say. This is particularly important in the case of Chancellor Merkel in view of the close and vitally important relations between the United States and Germany. A furious Chancellor Merkel said that it will be necessary to rebuild trust between the United States and Germany, and there is no doubt that the incident has been, at best, embarrassing and disruptive.
The United States has not expressly admitted tapping into Chancellor Merkel’s cell phone, but our failure to deny amounts to a tacit admission. President Obama has sought to reassure the Chancellor that the NSA will be more restrained in the future, but his own prior role remains a mystery. David E. Sanger wrote in The New York Times that tapping of Merkel’s phone “appears to have begun” under the prior administration, but that it was unclear not only what the purpose was but “ why Mr. Obama seemed unaware that it was happening, even five years into his presidency. (His national security adviser, Susan E. Rice, assured her German counterpart that the President knew nothing about it, even while refusing to confirm that it happened.)”
Even taking the reported assurance by Ambassador Rice at face value, several questions remain. If the President was “unaware,” why was that the case? When did he become “aware” and what action did he take? Assuming that the President has some system to keep himself abreast of what the NSA is up to, why did that “system” fail to turn up the sensitive, and potentially explosive, information that phones of foreign leaders were being tapped? Was the “system” modified after the initial Snowden disclosures?
Given the convenient cloak of “national security” those questions are unlikely to be answered any time soon, if ever, but they will hang in the air as another cloud over the competence of the administration.
Health Insurance Cancellations
In urging passage of Obamacare, the President repeatedly uttered one reassuring phrase: “If you like your insurance plan you will keep it. No one will be able to take that away from you. It hasn’t happened yet. It won’t happen in the future.” The problem: It has turned out to be false. In fact, hundreds of thousands of policies have been already been cancelled because they do not comply with requirements of the Affordable Care Act, and millions more appear headed for the same fate. As explained by The Wall Street Journal:
The law included a grandfather clause that was supposed to honor President Obama’s vow that if you like your health plan you can keep it. But in the name of political control and equity among plans, HHS wrote regulations that are so restrictive that few plans qualify for the safe harbor. Thus the mandates on required health benefits, cost-sharing and so on apply to most policies even if they aren’t sold on an Obamacare exchange.
Last year, a Health Affairs study found that 51% of the policies sold to the 19 million consumers who buy on the individual market are inadequate under the Sebelius-Obama vision. By the time this trauma recedes, more Americans may lose current coverage than gain it through the exchanges. That doesn’t mean they’ll become uninsured. But they’ll have to accept some higher-cost replacement in lieu of what they voluntarily buy today.
Perhaps not all who are forced to buy a new policy will have to pay a higher premium, but those who do may find the increase painful. In an example cited on the CBS Evening News, one policy holder who was paying $199 per month for a policy with a $1,500 deductible found that when her policy was canceled, the most similar policy available had a monthly premium of $278 and $6,500 deductible with coverage for only 70% of expenses above that level.
Some whose policies are canceled and who will have to pay a higher premium may qualify for a subsidy through a healthcare exchange—whenever it is that the exchanges are fully functional. But that may not be in time. As an article in The New York Times entitled “Promised Fix for Health Site Could Squeeze Some Users” observed:
The Obama administration said Friday that it would fix problems in the federal health insurance marketplace by Nov. 30, just two weeks before the deadline to sign up for coverage to replace health insurance policies being canceled because they do not meet new federal standards….Such a condensed time frame raises the question of how hundreds of thousands of people whose current policies do not comply with the health law will obtain new coverage in time, and how millions who may qualify for subsidies will enroll.
Thus, assuming that exchanges are brought fully on line, policy holders who qualify for a subsidy may have to assume the aggravation of dealing with an exchange just to keep coverage at a net cost that approximates what they were previously paying. Rube Goldberg would be proud.
But the question here is when did the President learn that the Department of Health and Human Services, under the leadership of Secretary Kathleen (“Heck of a job, Kathy”) Sebelius had issued regulations that would eviscerate the pledge that “If you like your insurance plan, you will keep it.” And now that he presumably does know, what action, if any, will he take to redeem that pledge?