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Joel Benenson
A.G. Paul Burnett/The New York Times/Red
Joel Benenson

Really, Mr. Benenson?

Politics | Changing the subject to the economy isn’t likely to help the president in 2014

Issue: "2013 News of the Year," Jan. 11, 2014

“Don’t worry,” you can hear a few defenders of the Obama administration say in hopefully comforting tones these days. “Like every other troublesome event, the ruckus over Obamacare will pass. The American public has a poor memory. All the furor over the botched website will disappear before 2014 is half over.”

To that end, loyalists like President Obama’s pollster Joel Benenson bravely circulated an internal memo in mid-November advising the president’s team to do everything they could to “change the subject.” “Our data continues [sic] to show, unequivocally, that the nation’s economic health remains voters’ overriding priority,” he pled. “Even amid a cascade of news cycles focused on the Affordable Care Act, Syria, the government shutdown and the NSA, voters’ primary focus has never shifted from their economic well being and financial security.”

OK. Let’s concede the point to Mr. Benenson, just for the sake of argument. Let’s assume that the American electorate cares not a fig about one foreign policy failure after another—and especially about the murder of our ambassador in Libya. Let’s assume that American voters are ready to ignore forever the illegal leverage the IRS has used to make life difficult for conservatives and religious organizations. Let’s assume that journalists will hear about a reporter whose notes were stolen by the federal government and respond nonchalantly by saying simply, “Never mind! Such things happen.”

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Let’s assume that such responses are all rooted in the fact that American citizens are not ultimately concerned with a sound foreign policy, integrity in intelligence gathering, or honesty and fairness in taxation. We’ll concede for now that a healthy checkbook is more important to most of us than is a president known for telling the truth. Just guarantee that our wallets will be fat, and we’ll quietly accept the most demonstrably dishonest president of our lifetime.

I think that’s what Benenson is arguing. And further, I think he may be more right than many of us would like to admit. There’s evidence on every side that Americans are more beholden to materialism than they are to any eternal verities and principle. Give us a choice between a big retirement account and a renewed emphasis on the Constitution’s Bill of Rights, and I’m afraid the Bill of Rights will take it on the chin.

Let’s also understand clearly that the current debate is not primarily between government-sponsored healthcare, on the one hand, and free-market providers on the other. That’s an implicit, important, and weighty discussion, but it’s not what’s mainly on the agenda right now. American voters are just shallow enough so that if they were offered demonstrably comparable products—a Year of Health Care A at $10,000 from a private vendor vs. a Year of Health Care B at $9,000 from Uncle Sam—Uncle Sam would almost certainly outsell the private vendor.

It really is about money! But it’s hardly a simple matter of changing the subject, as suggested by Benenson. Out there, across the great divide, where Benenson and his boss, the president, want to divert everybody’s attention, lie two great messes.

One mess is the general economy, still sputtering unconvincingly in spite of the experts’ best medications. The unemployed are still looking, investors are skittish, and the middle class looks skinnier every month. Is that where Benenson wants people to look for encouragement?

The other mess is Obamacare itself. Sometime over the next six months, 5 million to 50 million more American families will get a close look at the economy—if that’s what Mssrs. Benenson and Obama really meant and seriously want—or at least at the one-sixth of the economy represented by healthcare. These folks’ close-up view will include the increased cost of insurance premiums, the elevated deductibles, the higher co-pays, the cost of looking for new providers. It’s almost all about money and finance—but it’s not a particularly neat or attractive landscape.

Is this really where the Obama presidency wants American citizens to fix their gaze?

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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