In the spring of 2008, as it became clear that Barack Obama had a very good shot at winning the presidency, a communications consultant for his campaign gave a lecture at Columbia University, where I was a student. I asked him if the campaign wasn't worried that Obama, should he be elected, would probably fail to achieve all the things he was promising -- on health care, immigration, climate change and so much else.
The consultant didn't dispute my premise, but he didn't seem worried either. Before you can change things, he said, you need to win.
You can draw a straight line from that attitude to the news conference yesterday, where Obama was asked why he hadn't been more forthright with Americans about their ability to keep their insurance plans. Obama's answer was, essentially, that he had been too optimistic:
"My working assumption was that the majority of those folks would find better policies at lower cost or the same cost in the marketplaces," he said, and that "the universe of folks who potentially would not find a better deal in the marketplaces" would find that "the grandfather clause would work sufficiently for them."
He added: "It didn't. And again, that's on us … that's on me."
In other words, Obama took responsibility for making a bad guess. But that’s sleight of hand: He didn't promise people they would probably be able to keep their plans. He promised they would keep them, plain and simple. And as Obama all but acknowledged yesterday, what was interpreted as a presidential guarantee was in fact an estimation of probabilities -- and a lousy one at that.
Thinking back to that lecture in the spring of 2008, it's hard not to imagine that the president and his team knew exactly what they were doing when Obama promised people they could keep their plans. After all, before you can change things, you need to get the law passed.
If Obama knowingly misled the public to get the Affordable Care Act passed, it raises a hard question for those of us who still support it, despite all its foibles: Is a law that depends on a false promise defensible? Is necessity a reasonable defense? And if you accept that his decision to mislead the public helped get the bill passed, how much does that take away from the broader accomplishment of what remains a good law?
Obamacare will survive, and after a few years will even be seen as a success. But even so, the past few weeks will have attached a permanent asterisk to that success.
(Christopher Flavelle is a member of Bloomberg View's editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)