Obama, Home of the Whopper. Thoughts on Trust and the Will to Believe

Trust is a terrible thing to lose. Bitterness and disillusion are its inevitable progeny. In private life, the loss of trust forces a rearrangement of sympathy and affection. In public life, the loss of trust instigates a fundamental realignment of political affiliation.


But what causes a loss of trust? That is not as easy a question to answer as you might think. The simple revelation of mendacity is not enough. Why? In part it has to do with what William James, in a lecture of 1896, called “the will to believe.” When it comes to belief, James saw, assent is often determined as much by feeling as by fact. The decision to offer or withhold belief is just that: a decision, a matter of will as much as intellect. “We have the right,” James concludes, “to believe at our own risk any hypothesis that is live enough to tempt our will.”

James was speaking about belief in the matter of religion. But these days, when politics takes on more and more of the burdens of religion, his analysis applies equally to politics. The point is that, in politics as in religion, the wish can be father to conviction. We want to believe X. Evidence against X accumulates like rust upon a load-bearing chain. Up to a certain point, the chain holds. The will to believe provides a powerful inoculation against the corrosive virus of doubt, the calamity of shattered trust. Eventually, however, without reinforcement, the chain breaks and disillusionment follows.

Everyone, supporters and opponents, acknowledges that Barack Obama came to office surrounded by a powerful will to believe. In the run up to the election, and for a month or so afterwards, the press was full of stories about chaps who had “always voted for Republicans” but now were voting for “change.” You don’t hear much from those folks these days. But for a moment, their — what to call it? “credulousness” seems impolite, so let’s follow James and call it their “will to believe” — made Obama’s claim to be bi- or even post-partisan seem credible.


Then came

  • The Henry Louis Gates affair,
  • Van Jones’s exposure and resignation
  • ACORN, the hooker, and the underage Salvadorian girls
  • Yosi Sargent at the NEA,
  • Eric Holder and the Black Panthers
  • etc.

For most late converts, that illusion has now definitively shattered.

“You lie!” said Rep. Joe Wilson the other day as President Obama was addressing Congress about his plans to empower the government to annex health care. Wilson’s comment enriched his coffers but drew tuts from Republicans and tut-tuts from Democrats: whatever happened to civil discourse in American Politics? asked the people who brought you BushHitler and kindred examples of politesse.

The President paused to deny the charge even as he decried the “scare tactics” and misrepresentations of those who disagree with him about the advantages of government-run health care.

Do the people believe him?

It’s my sense that most of them don’t.

Yesterday, I urged you to read Shikha Dalmia superlative column in Forbes about Obama’s health care speech. Today, let me add Robert Tracinski’s “Obma’s Dissolving Credibility” to the reading list.

Tracinski begins by assembling a more or less random smorgasbord of untrue things Obama has said. The meat of his column, however, is a list of 7 big lies in Obama’s health care speech. Tracinski elaborates convincingly on each, but even in outline form they add up to a devastating indictment:


1) Obama claimed that his proposal is just minor, incremental tinkering with the current system.

2) He claimed his plan is bi-partisan.

3) He claimed that you would be allowed to keep your exisiting insurance.

4) He claimed that the so-called “public option” would not be subsidized by the government.

5) He claimed that the health-care bill would pay for itself with cost savings.

6) He claimed that there are no death panels.

7) He claimed that he doesn’t want a government takeover of medicine.

Let me say a bit more about 6 and 7. Many people, even many people skeptical about Democratic plans for health care, rushed to condemn Sarah Palin for using the term “death panel.” But consider what Tracinski says:

Obama attacks the “bogus claims spread by those whose only agenda is to kill reform at any cost. The best example is the claim, made not just by radio and cable talk show hosts, but prominent politicians, that we plan to set up panels of bureaucrats with the power to kill off senior citizens. Such a charge would be laughable if it weren’t so cynical and irresponsible. It is a lie, plain and simple.”

But what is Obama’s most plausible recommendation for cutting Medicare spending? “[A]n independent commission of doctors and medical experts charged with identifying more waste in the years ahead.” How will they identify waste? By deciding which procedures are “cost effective” and should be covered by Medicare-and which procedures are “wasteful” and should not be covered.

Britain’s National Health Service already has such a commission, established on precisely the same rationale. They call it the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, known by the Orwellian acronym NICE. It is becoming notorious for rules that deny care to older patients because they don’t have enough “quality adjusted life years” left to justify the cost of their treatment.

If you read the British newspapers-and if you’re concerned about what greater government control of medicine might look like, you should-then you might have caught the latest development: a letter by a group of distinguished British doctors complaining that the Liverpool Care Pathway, a NICE-endorsed system for determining the care given to severely ill patients, is causing doctors to abandon care for patients who still have a chance of recovery.

If that’s not a “death panel,” I don’t know what is. Yet it is precisely the system Obama advocates to cut costs under his plan.


As for number 7, Tracinski begins his elaboration by offering readers an interpretive tip:

when Barack Obama says, “So let me set the record straight,” he is about to lie to you about his past.

A few months ago, such a statement would have caused paroxysms of rage among the liberal commentariat. So far, I discern naught but an eerie silence.

Two additional points.

The poet Wallace Stevens, who was a student at Harvard when Williams James was teaching there, was clearly impressed by the whole idea of “the will to beleive.” He ends his poem “Flyer’s Fall” with the credo: “We believe without belief, beyond belief.” “Beyond belief” is a phrase susceptible of a couple of meanings. On the one hand, it suggests a realm outside the whole economy of belief and repudiation, an aestheticized realm where delectation assumes the burdens formerly shouldered by faith. On the other hand, “beyond belief” can suggest something more pedestrian, more colloquial, less edifying: “that’s simply beyond belief,” we say, meaning that it arrogantly trespasses upon our credulity or at least our patience. More and more, I think, people are finding Obama’s proposals beyond belief in the second, disturbing sense.

Final point. The Chinese traditionally said that their rulers presided with the Manadate of Heaven. Absent that mandate, the regime was illegitimate and must fall. In our democratic polity we smile at artifices like the mandate of heaven, but the “consent of the governed” fulfills a similar role. Consent depends upon trust. Increasingly, Obama is seen to have violated that trust. Which is why Tracinski is right to speak of “Obama’s Dissolving Credibility.”


The question now is how much damage he will be allowed to do before the credibility disappears altogether.


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