Everyone remembers that old joke: "How can you tell if a lawyer is lying? His lips move."
Here's a variation of it: "How can you tell when a politician gets desperate and disingenuous?" He (or she) declares that an expensive program will actually be less costly because of all the "waste" that will be identified and eliminated. ("Waste, fraud and abuse" are the Washington, DC, version of the Three Fates -- or maybe the Three Stooges.)
Was President Obama a bit desperate and disingenuous Wednesday night? Based on the above rule, oh yeah. Big time. And it suggests that his plans for broad reform are in really big trouble.
Let's consider the setting. A host of polls have been released this week showing public support dropping -- a large reason being, the $1 trillion price tag put on one version of the plan going through the House of Representatives. The Congressional Budget Office director declared last week that that bill wouldn't have anywhere near the cost savings that the president has been claiming. That has accelerated the speed of the political opposition to the reform effort.
So, with that in mind, what did the president do Wednesday? He made some reference to to the savings derived from eliminating "waste" no less than seven times!
1) "Already we've estimated that two-thirds of the cost of reform can be paid for by reallocating money that is simply being wasted in federal health care programs."
2) "We also want to create an independent group of doctors and medical experts who are empowered to eliminate waste and inefficiency in Medicare on an annual basis, a proposal that could save even more money and ensure long-term financial health for Medicare."
3) "But what I want do is to see what emerges from these committees, continuing to work to find more savings, because I actually think that it's possible for us to fund even more of this process through identifying waste in the system."
4) "And given the waste that's already in the system right now, if we just redesign certain elements of health care, then we can pay for that. We can pay for it in the short term, but we can also pay for it in the long term."
5) and 6) "It's not enough. But in order for us to do more, we're not only going to have to eliminate waste in the system -- and, by the way, we had a big victory yesterday by eliminating a weapons program, the F- 22, that the Pentagon had repeatedly said we didn't need -- so we're going to have to eliminate waste there."
7) "Well, the reason is, is because there's probably even more waste than $80 billion in terms of how the drug plan in Medicare is administered. We might be able to get $100 billion out or more, but the pharmaceutical industry voluntarily said, 'Here's $80 billion.'"
The president isn't necessarily lying when he makes these statements: He sincerely believes he can wring waste out of the system. But, so has every other politician who's ever uttered similar words. The problem isn't that there's not waste in any budget -- whether local, state or federal. The problem is that one person's "waste" is another person's beloved program that must be saved at all costs. That's why it is so difficult to kill a program once it's been invented: A constituency grows up around it to defend it at all costs.
Obama was right to take some credit for getting the Senate to cut funding for the F-22 jet (both Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Sen. John McCain have called for its elimination) -- but don't think that the plane's defenders won't be working to try to get the funding restored when the defense appropriations bill goes into conference in the House. The plane has some powerful allies -- including Ted Kennedy, who cited the jobs that would be lost in Massachusetts if the F-22 was eliminated.
So take that example and multiply it by hundreds and thousands of different line-items in the federal budget. Can some things be trimmed here and there on the margins? Sure.
But one trillion dollars worth? Forget it. How about even half that much? Not bloody likely.
The saddest thing about Obama trying to make this case was how incredibly stale the argument sounded. Anyone who has been around Washington, DC, for even a few years has heard the "waste, fraud and abuse" mantra.
How ironic -- and sad -- that the "candidate of change" ends up resorting to one of the oldest DC rhetorical devices in the book. Sorry, Mr. President, that's not change we can believe in.
In fact, it's not change at all. That he tried to package it as such demonstrates how much trouble health-care -- and possibly a whole lot more of his agenda -- may be in. The seasoned reporters in that room have heard all this before. The press conference was a "wasted" opportunity in all senses of the phrase.