Suspicious Semantics

President Obama was interviewed by 5 different networks over the weekend. Here is one short segment of one interview that I found interesting. It’s a short conversation between George Stephanopoulos and President Obama about new taxation that is in the current health care reform bill. You can also read the text of the conversation from The Wall Street Journal or Fox News.

So President Obama is talking about imposing a tax on those that don’t have insurance in order to create an incentive for them to get it. Regardless of whether this is a good idea, the fact is that President Obama apparently doesn’t believe that such a tax is actually a tax. Now I’m pretty sure that this is considered a tax just about no matter who you are talking to. In fact, the text of the Baucus Bill itself (page 29) calls this a tax:

Excise Tax. The consequence for not maintaining insurance would be an excise tax. If a taxpayer’s MAGI is between 100-300 percent of FPL, the excise tax for failing to obtain coverage for an individual in a taxpayer unit (either as a taxpayer or an individual claimed as a dependent) is $750 per year. However, the minimum penalty for the taxpayer unit is $1,500. If a taxpayer’s MAGI is above 300 percent of FPL the penalty for failing to obtain coverage for an individual in a taxpayer unit (either as a taxpayer or as an individual claimed as a dependent) is $950 year. However, the maximum penalty amount a family above 300 percent of FPL would pay is $3,800.

But President Obama says it’s not a tax. And he was pretty insistent about it. As I recall, President Obama has promised not to raise taxes quite a few times, including during his campaign and specifically in regard to health care reform. Here’s what he told congress last week:

First, I will not sign a plan that adds one dime to our deficits – either now or in the future. Period.

The plan will not add to our deficit. The middle-class will realize greater security, not higher taxes.

And here is what he said to congress back in February about how his administration was going “to go line by line through the federal budget” to cut “wasteful and ineffective programs:”

If your family earns less than $250,000 a year, you will not see your taxes increased a single dime. I repeat: not one single dime.

But since this “isn’t a tax,” he can still sign the bill and keep all his promises (at least in his opinion) to not raise taxes by a cent—excuse me, by “one single dime”—in doing so.

So then, what does he really mean then when he says he’s not going to allow an increase in taxes? Does he really mean that taxes won’t be increased? Or is he going to have to continue redefining a “tax” in order to keep that promise?

Personally, I think this calls into question the validity of promises President Obama’s makes. Apparently he can simply redefine commonly held concepts and definitions at his convenience in order to keep those promises. This also makes me wonder: is it often the case that what President Obama thinks he is promising and what most of the people hearing his speeches think he is promising are not, in fact, the same thing? That seems to be the case here.