Could the president be wagging the dog?

Official_Photo_of_Hassan_Rouhani,_7th_President_of_Iran,_August_2013In the movie Wag the Dog, a fictional Democratic president organizes a fake war with Albania to distract voters from a sex scandal. The phrase has since become synonymous with presidents doing novel or outrageous things to distract attention from their failings.

Could Barack Obama have made a fake peace with Iran to save his administration from the failings of the Affordable Care Act? The deal with Iran is neither as good as its supporters claim nor as bad as its critics suggest, but it deserves a column of its own – in due course. This column examines the Wag the Dog theory.

Much as the president’s supporters claim the problems with Obamacare are the failings of a website, they are deeper than that. In the long term – or even the fairly short term of a few months – the failures of the website will come to be seen as trivial. Healthcare reform will ultimately be judged by whether people end up with better or more affordable healthcare. This columnist suspects that it will be seen as a failure on these grounds, but that is something that will be determined over the next few years. The present news cycle is unlikely to be the determinant.

While it is true that political operations such as the White House can become obsessed by the news cycle, and are sometimes unable to see beyond it, they probably quite capable of seeing that healthcare reform is not something that should be, or will be, judged over a few weeks.

Thinking in the White House is almost certainly dominated by those who think that the policy will prove, over time, to be a success. Of course, those people may well be concerned that the inherent merits of the policy will dawn on people only slowly. The complexity of the policy may mean that it will take some time for people to realize its strengths. The individual mandate, for example, exists partly to overcome people’s tendency towards short-termism. People sometimes do not buy insurance because they hope they will not need it. They postpone the cost of taking out insurance. Being forced to take out insurance will be an irritation to such people. But as soon as they encounter the need for healthcare, they will be won over – or so advocates of the mandate imagine.

The time lag between the policy being implemented and its benefits becoming apparent is politically significant. There are congressional and state elections next November. If the policy is still unpopular then, this is sure to hurt Democrats. But knocking cancelled insurance policies out of the news for a few days in November 2013 is unlikely to affect the outcome of elections a year later. 

There may, of course, be some dawning realization in the White House that the policy is not as great as its designers imagined. What if younger people would rather pay the fine than take out expensive insurance policies? Since a major plank of the policy is to get healthy young people to subsidize the health needs of their wealthier parents, their refusal to do this will be expensive. Mom and Pop are expecting a subsidy. If it doesn’t arrive then their insurance costs will rise. 

But this, too, is something that will emerge over years rather than days. A deal with Iran will not affect people’s judgment on this question.

Quentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School as well as a freelance columnist published in the UK and all parts of the US. He blogs on social media and crisis communications at


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