If President Obama can't win a second term, at least he has a promising career as a professional wrestler.
Obamacare emails made public last week show that Obama is skilled at publicly pretending to fight a supposed bad guy -- the drug lobby, in this case -- while ensuring neither side actually gets hurt, both sides get paid, and everyone can be chums afterward.
Throughout his campaign and while pushing his health care law, Obama regularly spoke as if he were sticking it to the drug industry. But these were phantom punches. Sometimes, the emails show, the drug lobbyists didn't even blink an eye.
"If the drugmakers pay their fair share," Obama said in a weekly radio address in June 2009, "we can cut government spending on prescription drugs."
A CBS News report at the time took this as a threat to the industry, citing the fact sheet the White House published alongside the radio address suggested cutting federal payments for drugs purchased by Medicare patients who are poor enough to qualify for Medicaid (so-called dual-eligibles, or "duals").
But top PhRMA lobbyist Bryant Hall, a former Democratic Senate staffer, had an advance copy of the script and emailed his colleagues the night before Obama's address aired. "Background is that the Pres's words are harmless," Hall wrote. "He knows personally about our deal and is pushing no agenda."
Hall assured his colleagues, "The reference to Duals does NOT mean that they want to do the duals policy .... Again -- this was a face save, not a real option."
Ken Johnson, PhRMA spokesman, replied, "Good to know the backroom politics."
Over the following weeks, the emails show, drug lobbyists, White House officials and aides to Sen. Max Baucus hammered out a deal that formed the backbone of Obamacare. The final bill would subsidize prescription drugs, force states to include drug coverage in Medicaid, and expand private insurance coverage of drugs. Also, the White House pledged to oppose policies that Obama had promised on the campaign trail: allowing reimportation of prescription drugs and empowering Medicare to negotiate for lower prices on the drugs Medicare is paying for. In return, drug companies would offer a discount to some senior citizens, and would spend millions of dollars on ads supporting the bill and the lawmakers who backed it.
But after the deal was complete, in late July, Obama publicly delivered a play-fight piledriver to the drug lobby. "I understand that some will try to delay action until the special interests can kill it," Obama said in the Rose Garden on July 21. The president warned that his opponents "would maintain a system that works for the insurance and the drug companies, while becoming increasingly unaffordable for families and for businesses."
After that speech, Republican Pfizer lobbyist Anthony Principi, a former Bush Cabinet member, wrote in annoyance to PhRMA lobbyists and other top drug lobbyists. "We're trying to kill it?" he asked sarcastically. "I guess we didn't give enough in contributions and media ads supporting hcr [health care reform]. Perhaps no amount would suffice." (The pharmaceutical industry gave $1.2 million to Obama in the 2008 election, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, the most it had ever given to a candidate, and more than triple its contribution to John McCain.)
Hall wrote back: "Billy [Tauzin, president of PhRMA] and I were at the WH today. We raised this issue with Jim Messina." Messina was deputy chief of staff and one of the drug industry's main points of contact. "Jim said that he went into the Oval [Office] and talked to the President." Messina reportedly asked Obama, "Why was this in the sppech?" [sic.] Hall writes that "Obama said, 'I was wondering the same.' Attributed to young speechwriter."
Hall also wrote that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel called the harsh words "an error."
Real tension did flare up throughout the dealmaking process, the emails show. But in the end, Obama got his bill, and the drug lobby certainly got its bill -- "we got a good deal," Hall wrote in one email. Hall is now a big Democratic donor, having given more than $20,000 to Democratic candidates this election, including $500 to Priorities USA, which is Obama's super-PAC. Sally Susman, Pfizer's vice president for policy who was on many of the dealmaking emails, is now a volunteer Obama fundraiser, having raised more than $500,000 for Obama's re-election campaign, which Messina is managing.
Between Obama and Big Pharma, it seems, it's all in the family.
Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.