President Barack Obama took his medicine Thursday.
He admitted before a national television audience that he misled a wary public by repeatedly trumpeting, "You will be able to keep your health plan," at a time when such assurances were critical to getting the Affordable Care Act enacted. He should have known that the politically expedient promise would turn out to be untrue.
Now that failed promise threatens to upend Obama's agenda, as sentiment grows that he can't be trusted. Thursday's admission was necessary to give him any chance to restore the faith of the American people and of congressional Democrats desperate to quell the political firestorm. But the mea culpa may not make much of a difference.
Obama announced modest changes that might extend for another year the policies of some whose insurance is being canceled because it didn't meet the minimum coverage required by the Affordable Care Act. That's probably the most he can do on his own.
The law always allowed the estimated 12 million to 19 million people who bought coverage on the open market to keep plans they've had since the day in 2010 that Obamacare was enacted. Thursday, Obama expanded that provision to allow people with plans that changed after 2010 -- and many have -- and those who purchased new plans since then to keep their coverage through 2014.
The group directly affected by this debacle -- estimated at 2 to 2.5 percent of all those with insurance coverage -- is relatively small. The 149 million people covered by employer-based plans, and the 100 million people in government programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, don't fall under this provision.
What Obama didn't and couldn't do Thursday was guarantee that some people who've gotten cancellation notices still won't lose their coverage. State insurance commissioners decide which plans can be sold in their states. Washington state, for example, has already said it won't change course and allow subpar plans. Meanwhile, an insurance industry group questioned Thursday just how it was supposed to change course so quickly.
The fundamental bargain of Obamacare is that while reforms such as covering people with pre-existing conditions and eliminating caps on annual and lifetime coverage will cost insurers money, in exchange they get millions of new customers mandated to buy policies. Young, healthy policyholders would pay more so that older, sicker ones could pay less. And in the bargain almost everyone would get better coverage. But there had to be some losers, thus the outcry. If insurers now let millions of young, healthy people keep low-cost plans that don't provide the minimum coverage required, it will drive up the cost of insurance for everyone else.
Obama wasn't convincing when he explained his rationale for making those too-good-to-be-true promises in 2010. He expected that for 98 percent of the people, either the law wouldn't force them to change policies, or they'd be happy to switch because they'd get better coverage at comparable prices. Existing coverage would be grandfathered in for the other 2 percent. It didn't work out that way because some insurers predictably canceled plans that didn't meet the law's minimum coverage requirements.
Obama misled the public. But this quick fix might not make it all right.