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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Warren Buffett on Obamacare

A week ago, billionaire investor Warren Buffett denied he wants to “scrap” Obamacare, calling such reports “totally false.” But that has done little to stop some Republicans from spreading the rumor.

A day after Buffett’s denial, Rep. Jim Jordan said, “All the momentum is in our direction. Warren Buffett said yesterday, ‘Scrap the bill.'”

More recently, Rep. Tom Graves said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sept. 22: “Warren Buffett says stop it now and start over.” A day later, former Rep. Joe Scarborough, on his MSNBC show “Morning Joe,” said: “Warren Buffett came out last week and said … Obamacare is not going to work. We need to start all over.”

What’s going on?

The confusion stems from a Sept. 17 blog item on a website called Money Morning that carried the headline “Buffett: Scrap Obamacare and Start All Over.” The Weekly Standard blogged about that article with a similar headline, “Warren Buffett: Scrap Obamacare and Start Over.

Some Republicans tweeted about the Weekly Standard blog post and linked to it, helping to spread the misinformation. One such re-tweet — which was later deletedcame from Rep. Tim Griffin of Arkansas: “RT: #ar2 RT @weeklystandard: Warren Buffett: Scrap #Obamacare and Start Over http://t.co/4vstDPlpEk.”

But here’s the problem: The Weekly Standard did not disclose — until it updated the story later — that Buffett’s remarks were more than three years old. Even then, his words were taken out of context by the bloggers, as Buffett himself said in a Sept. 17 interview with the Omaha World-Herald. “This is outrageous,” Buffett told the World-Herald. “It’s 100 percent wrong … totally false.”

To trace the history of this false claim, let’s first go back to March 1, 2010, when Buffett gave an interview to CNBC. It came at a time when the Affordable Care Act was nearing final approval in Congress. Obama signed the bill into law 22 days later.

In the CNBC interview, Buffett talked about the high cost of health care in the United States — which he correctly said consumes about 17 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. He compared health care costs to “a tapeworm eating, you know, at our economic body.” He then said the Senate bill would do little to address the cost of health care.

“Unfortunately, we came up with a bill that really doesn’t attack the cost situation that much. And we have to have a fundamental change,” Buffett said.

The host, Becky Quick, asked Buffett if he was “in favor of scrapping this and going back to start over.” He said: “I would be if I were President Obama.” But he also said that he wasn’t changing his mind on the bill and he preferred it to the status quo.

Quick, March 1, 2010: This is different than what you’ve said when we’ve talked to you in the past. I mean, even a couple months ago when I sat down and talked to you, you said that you would vote, I believe, for the bill if it were in front of you.

Buffett: I–if it’s a choice…

Quick: When did you change your mind?

Buffett: No, if it was a choice today between plan A, which is what we’ve got, or plan B, what is in front of–the Senate bill, I would vote for the Senate bill. But I would much rather see a plan C that really attacks costs. And I think that’s what the American public want to see. I mean, the American public is not behind this bill. And we need the American public behind the bill, because it’s going to have to do some tough things. But in–if it doesn’t bring down costs significantly–and you can say, well, you’re bringing down costs by raising a tax over here or cutting–improving Medicare, but you can do those things anyway. That’s got nothing to do with what’s being proposed in the bill. So I–if the only choice I had in the world was the present system or the present bill, I would take the bill. But I think it’d be far better to say cost is it. We’re going to go back and we’re not going to come back to the American people until we have something that is going to take this 16 or fraction and it’s going to bring it down somewhat toward what other countries are doing.

So, Buffett at the time supported the bill and would have voted for it, despite its flaws.

Since the Affordable Care Act became law, Buffett has reiterated his support for it. In an interview with Betty Liu of Bloomberg Television’s “In the Loop” last year, Buffett was asked if the U.S. Supreme Court made the right decision to uphold the constitutionality of the law. He said yes and called the law a “step in the right direction in many ways” while also once again expressing his concern about the high cost of health care.

Liu, July 13, 2012: A few weeks ago we heard from the Supreme Court, they upheld the health care reform act, the Affordable Care Act. Was that the right decision?

Buffett: Well I think it’s the right decision, but I think that the health care problem is the number-one problem of America and of American business. If we have 17 or 18 percent of our GDP going to health care and we’re competing with countries that have 10 percent. That’s seven or eight points. There’s only 100 points in the dollar. And to have a seven- or eight-point disadvantage is huge. And a lot of businessmen complain about corporate taxes.

Liu: Yes.

Buffett: Corporate taxes are less than two percent of GDP. So if you eliminated all the corporate taxes you’ve got seven points against you on health care. It’s the tapeworm essentially of the American economy. And we have not dealt with that yet. Obamacare is a step in the right direction in many ways, but in terms of cost —

In their recent efforts to defund Obamacare, some Republicans have cast the president’s own allies as opponents of the law. They frequently cite a letter, for example, from three union leaders that asked Democratic congressional leaders to amend the law, warning that if implemented as written, the law “will shatter not only our hard-earned health benefits, but destroy the foundation of the 40-hour workweek that is the backbone of the American middle class.”

On ABC’s “This Week,” Graves, a two-term congressman from Georgia, cited union leaders and Buffett as examples of “widespread” opposition to Obamacare.

Graves, Sept. 22: Warren Buffett says stop it now and start over. You have the three top leaders of the unions in our country saying this is not what will work. It’s going to create a new underclass of workers that are under 30 hours. It’s not just Republicans, this is widespread …

But Buffett isn’t one of those critics. In his interview with the Omaha paper, which is owned by his company Berkshire Hathaway, Buffett called reports that he wants to scrap the bill and start over “100 percent wrong.”

Omaha World-Herald, Sept. 17: Buffett said the stories took his comments out of context and added the “scrapped” wording.

“I’ve never suggested nor thought Obamacare should be scrapped,” said Buffett, who has supported Obama’s political campaigns. “I support it. It relates to providing medical care for all Americans. That’s something I’ve thought should be done for a long, long time.”

Buffett himself goes too far in saying that he “never suggested nor thought Obamacare should be scrapped.” He did answer in the affirmative when asked that very question in March 2010. But his words were taken out of context, and he did not say the law should be scrapped now. He indicated his support for the bill in that interview as an improvement over the current health care system. And, after the bill became law, he reiterated that position last year and again this year.

— Eugene Kiely