That’s the president of the nation, not just California, appearing in a Funny or Die video with Zach Galifianakis. He would be the first sitting president to appear on an internet humor program, were it not for James K. Polk’s hilarious “What Treaty?” telegraph comedy routine with Sitting Bull. Still, it seems important that the president of the United States would do a low-budget video with a waning film buffoon. It’s something Reagan probably would never have—oh, wait.
Galifianakis’s agent received this boon because the president is trying to get young people to sign up for HealthCare.gov. If you are a crappy, self-insured (decreasingly) young person like me, go to HealthCare.gov right now and sign up for a new plan. It’s almost guaranteed to be better than your old one. For example, I used to pay $260 a month for insurance that did not cover doctor’s visits and specified a $38,000 deductible for my tricky left shoulder. Now I pay $266 a month for a $750 deductible on a plan that covers freaking chiropracty.
If you are self-employed or young or kind of poor, the Affordable Care Act was good for you. It’s also one of the few social welfare initiatives that will work better the more people sign up. Here we encounter a peculiar feature of Obamacare, which has been a fait accompli since 2010 but remains the central issue of the Republican Party.
The thing about the Affordable Care Act is that if nobody signs up, it won’t really work. The shared risk that is the basis of insurance makes Obamacare different from programs like Medicaid or SNAP, which get arithmetically more expensive the more people use them. Because the Affordable Care Act is new, the American people might elect representatives to roll it back, if only it fails in these first few years. Hence advertisements like this:
Americans for Prosperity funded that spot featuring Julie Boonstra, who in addition to fighting leukemia is also the ex-wife of the former chairman of the Washtenaw County GOP. When the Detroit News did some digging and found that Boonstra’s premiums and out-of-pocket maximum are both lower under her new, Obamacare-compliant insurance policy—she’ll save about $1000 a year—she responded, “I personally do not believe that.” Props to Ben al-Fowlkes for the link.
I mention this to address the question of the dignity of President Obama’s office and the danger posed by him going on the internet and making fun of The Hangover Part III. I agree that, in a perfect world, the POTUS would not do that. Ours is a manifestly imperfect world, though, as evinced by the billionaire industrialist brothers scouring the nation for made-up stories to convince sick people not to take advantage of a set of federal regulations passed four years ago.
We have come to an interesting juncture. At this point, the rhetoric surrounding Obamacare has become completely divorced from facts. The law is in place. We are no longer mustering figures to convince one another what it might do. At the same time, it’s too early to point to significant outcomes. As Boonstra demonstrates, even the anecdotal evidence is unreliable and poorly understood. We are locked in the worst moment of public debate: when nothing meaningful can be done at the policy level, but no one has been proven right. Obamacare exists in a realm of pure rhetoric.
Horrifyingly, the course of that rhetoric may determine whether Obamacare succeeds or fails. If people like Boonstra refuse to sign up for insurance on the exchanges—okay, that would actually help the overall pool. But if people without leukemia believe Boonstra and refuse to sign up for better insurance at lower rates, the Affordable Care Act is doomed. A potential good program will fail because wealthy industrialists convinced us all not to try it.
In this context, the president can do all the internet comedy videos he wants. If 2% of 28 year-olds who see him cracking wise with Galifianakis go to HealthCare.gov, the indignity is worth it. Here is your American discourse in 2014. It’s a massive competition for money and votes from people who personally do not believe numerical evidence. One side has its own news network and several of the richest Americans who ever lived. The other has Zach Galifianakis.