"Obama phones": Right wing's latest bogus obsession

A Reagan-era policy is the latest bogus attack the right can't let go

Published April 10, 2013 5:25PM (EDT)

Why are Republicans looking to scale back Lifeline, a Reagan-era policy that provides discounts to low-income phone users? Because the policy, referred to as "Obama phones" by conservatives, has had the bad luck of being distorted as the Obama administration's policy of handing out free phones to welfare recipients -- a claim that was boosted by a racially charged video that went viral.

This month, the House Energy and Commerce Committee will hold a hearing on the policy. “The program has nearly tripled in size from $800 million in 2009 to $2.2 billion per year in 2012,” Republicans on the committee wrote in March. “American taxpayers — and we as their elected representatives — need to know how much of this growth is because of waste, fraud and abuse.”

Lifeline began during the Reagan administration, and was expanded during George W. Bush's presidency to include cellphone service. It's funded by phone bill fees that most people pay -- not, as some conspiracy theorists believe, by taxes. As the Washington Post reports:

In Obama’s first term, amid evidence of widespread fraud, the Federal Communications Commission moved to crack down on the program, saving what it predicts will be $400 million this year, on top of $214 million in 2012.

Never mind all that. “Obama phone” has stuck.

Republicans employ it as shorthand for the excesses of a welfare state. So prevalent is the catchphrase that some telecommunications companies even market the discounted service as an “Obama phone” — and often add a free phone for those who sign up.

The theory that Obama was handing out free phones first popped up several years ago, but started to go more mainstream around six months ago when a race-baiting video posted on Drudge Report went viral. In the video, a black woman says: “Everybody in Cleveland, low minority got Obama phone. Keep Obama in president, you know? He gave us a phone.” The right quickly pounced.

By Jillian Rayfield

Jillian Rayfield is an Assistant News Editor for Salon, focusing on politics. Follow her on Twitter at @jillrayfield or email her at jrayfield@salon.com.

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Barack Obama Conservatives Drudge Report Phones Welfare