Having just watched an hour and a half of ABC News's special coverage from the White House, the thing that upon reflection seems the most striking is the commercials. I was watching on cable in New York, so some of the ads may have been specific to my cable company or the local ABC affiliate, but, with that caveat, I counted two commercials from the U.S. Postal Service – the government paying ABC to help promote the Obama agenda. There was at least one commercial from Bank of America, the recipient of $35 billion in money from the Treasury's Troubled Asset Relief Program ($47 billion if you also count the $12 billion that Bank of America and Merrill Lynch got passed through to them as AIG counterparties). That's the government paying a bank to pay ABC to help promote the Obama agenda. Another advertiser was Ford, which just this week got a $5.9 billion loan from the federal government. There was a commercial from Wachovia, whose parent, Wells Fargo, took $25 billion from TARP, and one from Capital One Bank, which took $3.5 billion from TARP that it repaid last week. There was a commercial from Chrysler, which, if you count its suppliers and financing affiliate, took in $11.5 billion from TARP.
In other words, the money that the federal government gave to all of these companies is now flowing back as advertising that functions to help the president push his health care overhaul. I'm not suggesting that there is or was a quid pro quo, and many of these companies are probably longtime television advertisers whose commercials air whether the ABC News program is Charles Gibson interviewing President Obama or Barbara Walters interviewing Monica Lewinsky. But it says something about the moment that we are in that it isn't just the actual news programming that underscores the drive for a larger government role in the economy, but the commercials, too.
Other thoughts on the night of Obama-Care on ABC: Even though Mr. Obama's questioners included the chief executive of the Aetna insurance company, the president of the American Medical Association, and the woman who ran Medicare for the Bush administration, and even though the ABC news anchors themselves asked some reasonably tough questions, the overall event netted out as a big positive for Mr. Obama. ABC's Mr. Gibson began by touting health care policy as "the number one subject for public discourse all through this summer." Which is exactly what the Obama administration wants the number one subject to be, rather than, say, the unemployment rate, or economic growth, or the protests in Iran.
Mr. Obama praised the Mayo Clinic, which we mentioned in a FutureOfCapitalism.com post yesterday morning. When Diane Sawyer smartly followed up by noting that Mayo is a private institution and asking, "Why get the government involved in something that has been done already in the private sector?" Mr. Obama complained that the success stories in the private sector aren't spreading. He also noted that government is already significantly involved in health care through Medicare and Medicaid, a point that we made here. (He didn't make the logical leap to suggest that the high degree of government involvement may retard the spread of private sector innovation in quality and cost control.) And he said costs of health insurance are increasing too quickly, reporting that the average family has seen their premium costs double in the past nine years. Mr. Obama apparently does not think the health-care costs will self-correct over time through market mechanisms; one can only imagine that had he been president in 2006, he would have been proposing a federal program to restrain real estate costs, which, at the time, had increased so sharply in recent years that one might have assumed that, without government action, families would not be able to afford to buy houses.
The Aetna executive's comment about the so-called "public option" of a government insurance plan to compete with private plans was that "It's difficult to compete against a player who is also refereeing the game." The president's response was to flatter the CEO. "Aetna is a well-managed company and I am confident that your shareholders are going to do well," Mr. Obama said. That will be one to fact-check in a few years. Keep an eye out for Aetna commercials on the next Obama special; maybe the ad could just feature the quote from the president.