During his 2008 presidential run, Barack Obama ran an ad featuring him at a campaign stop, blasting former Congressman turned lobbyist Billy Tauzin.
As chairman of the House Energy and Commerce committee in 2003, Tauzin had shepherded the Medicare prescription drug legislation through Congress, which was a multi-billion dollar giveaway to the drug industry. After leaving the Congress shortly thereafter, he landed a lucrative gig leading the pharmaceutical industry's lobbying group.
"That's an example of the same old game-playing in Washington," Obama said in the video. "I don't want to learn how to play the game better. I want to put an end to the game playing."
Such pledges were central to Obama's candidacy – the idea that he'd end the cynicism people have about Washington by bringing about real change to the way business is conducted in the nation's capitol.
And on January 21, 2009 – his first full day as president – Obama issued an executive order that he claimed would curb the influence of lobbyists. "We need to close the revolving door that lets lobbyists come into government freely, and lets them use their time in public service as a way to promote their own interests over the interests of the American people when they leave," he said.
On Wednesday, America's Health Insurance Plans, the insurance industry's largest lobbying group, announced that it had elected Marilyn Tavenner as its chief executive officer. Before joining AHIP, Tavenner led the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services under Obama, where she was tasked with overseeing the implementation of Obamacare – writing the rules regulating the same insurance companies that she'll now be representing as a lobbyist.
Tavenner could be a poster child for the corrupting influences of the revolving door between industry and government that Obama once decried. A former hospital executive and lobbyist, she was appointed in 2006 by then Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine to serve as the state's health secretary before entering the Obama administration.
After gaining experience overseeing nearly $900 billion in federal health spending at CMS, she's cashed in. In April, she joined the board of hospital chain LifePoint, where she could earn $300,000 a year. Though her salary at AHIP was not announced, in 2013, the AHIP CEO earned about $2 million, according to the organization's tax filings.
Beyond exposing the insincerity of Obama's pledges to end the revolving door, the Tavenner news busts another myth about Obamacare – that the law was meant to rein in the insurance industry. In reality, Obama didn't rein in the insurance industry. He went into business with the insurance industry.
During the push to overhaul the healthcare system, Obama made a political calculation to avoid a fully socialized healthcare system that would put private insurers out of business, arguing it would be too disruptive. He also ultimately abandoned a plan to create a government-run insurance plan to be sold along side privately-administered plans on Obamacare's insurance exchanges, because it couldn't get through the Senate.
Under Obamacare as it stands, individuals are not only required to purchase private insurance policies, but the federal government is projected to spend $700 billion over the next decade providing subsidies for people to buy insurance. What industry wouldn't want the government to mandate and subsidize the purchase of its product?
This reality has created a symbiotic relationship between the insurance industry and government. The government needs insurers to participate in the government-run exchanges, or else Obamacare can't work. And insurers need to satisfy the government to keep the subsidy money flowing and to avoid greater regulatory scrutiny.
Whenever the prospects of Obamacare were in doubt, such as during the last legislative push in March 2010, Obama framed the law as being about "holding insurance companies more accountable." But that was mostly theater, because insurance companies are unpopular. By Oct. 2013, at the troubled launch of the exchanges, Obama was playing the role of an insurance salesman at the White House Rose Garden, declaring "the product is good" and repeating a 1-800 number, desperately urging Americans to buy coverage.
There's a reason why Tavenner is so valuable to AHIP – and it's not for her role in the disastrous rollout of Obamacare's healthcare.gov website. She has a web of connections within the Obama administration and an intimate knowledge of how it works. But her being at AHIP is also valuable for the administration, because it means that the insurance industry's main lobbying group will now be headed by a cheerleader for Obamacare.
One of the biggest barriers for Republicans trying to repeal Obamacare will be that many industries have now invested and built their businesses around the assumption that the law would be in place, and thus won't be so eager for it to go away.
With Tavenner at the helm of AHIP, the cozy relationship that Obamacare fostered between government and the insurance industry just got cozier.