The Shady Ethics of ‘The Obama Phone’

The Shady Ethics of ‘The Obama Phone’ September 28, 2012

UPDATE: The story gets even weirder.  See the update below.

By now, most of my readers will have seen the infamous YouTube video of an Obama supporter explaining that all minorities should vote for President Obama because he gives out free phones:

The story has taken several turns.

Surely this woman is deceived, right?  Surely — surely — Barack Obama is not in the business of giving out cell phones in exchange for a vote.  Right?

As it turns out, there is a government assistance program to provide low-income individuals with landlines or with cell phones.

So, surely this is another example of Barack Obama purchasing the favor of special interest groups with government largesse, right?  Barack’s big-government, redistributionist policies run amok?

That’s not quite right either.  It was long felt that universal access should be the goal of telecommunications, so that all people would have access to phones in case of emergency and so that existing customers could reach all people.  Liberal website ThinkProgress says, “The idea of providing low-income individuals with subsidized phone service was originated in the Reagan administration following the break-up of AT&T in 1984. (It was expanded and formalized by the Telecommunications Act of 1996.) The program is paid for by telecommunications companies through an independent non-profit, not through tax revenue.”

So, the conservative response to the “Obama phone” is just example of conservative stupidity, right?  Obama has nothing to do with the program, and it’s not supported by taxpayers, right?

Well, no, again it’s not that simple.  For one thing, ThinkProgress supports its reference to Reagan with a link to, which does not reference Reagan at all.  ThinkProgress seems to be reaching hard to associate the Lifeline phone service program with Reagan, when it actually began in 1996 under a law signed by Clinton (isn’t it interesting how ThinkProgress leaves out his name?).  For another thing, the government forces phone providers to pay a fee in support of the Lifeline program, and phone service providers in turn force their American customers – taxpayers – to pay a fee.  It’s not unreasonable to call this a tax, even if it’s a tax that’s trying to avoid being called a tax.

But the really interesting question is: Who has been marketing this as the “Obama Phone”?

First, let’s step back.  Having a program to ensure that welfare recipients have at least minimal phone service is not necessarily a bad idea.  We can all imagine emergency situations where phone access would be critical, whether it’s because the individual needs to reach emergency services or because a local government or law enforcement needs to reach the individual.  And expanding the program to cell phones is, likewise, not necessarily a bad idea.  It’s arguably cheaper, since there is no installation charge.

Where I have questions is with the marketing of the free cell phones as “Obama phones.”  Imagine, for instance, that it were the government itself that advertised the phones as Obama phones, starting in 2009.  This would be, at the very least, deeply misleading.  It would be taking credit for a program begun under predecessors.  It would be similar to President Bush in his first term, if he had come to office after Clinton initiated a program that gave free cars to welfare recipients, seeking electoral advantage by advertising them as “Bush cars.”

But clearly (?) that’s not the case here, right?  A visit to — which calls itself “a small publishing company and the authority on the U.S. government’s Lifeline Assistance program as it applies to mobile phones” — decries the “false rumor” of Obama Phones, which it calls an “incorrect term” because the cell phone program began several months before Obama’s election.  Case closed.

Or maybe not.  Visit and here’s what you see (I suspect they’ll make changes soon, if they haven’t already, so I wanted to take a screenshot):

It begins: “What exactly is the free Obama phone? The free OBama phone is a program that is meant to help the financially unstable who cannot afford access to a cell phone…”

When you click the link at to apply for a free cell phone, you’re redirected to…wait for it…  That’s right.  The same website that decried the “false rumor” and “incorrect term” of The Obama Phone Program has another website, surely desired to attract search engine traffic, that advertises The Obama Phone Program.  Nice.

UPDATE: The website has already been changed!  Visit now, and you’ll get something like a blog with no pictures of Obama, as though they’re in the process of dismantling the site.  But surely there’s nothing to see here, folks!  Let’s talk about Mitt Romney’s tax forms!

So then we reach the question: Who funds the companies like and  Did they begin calling it “the Obama Phone” before or after the rumors of Obama phones began to spread through email?  Do they have a profit-share arrangement with the wireless telecoms that receive money (albeit indirectly) from the government to distribute free cell phones?  Are they paid by the federal government to help spread the word about the free cell phone service program?

These websites are hard to penetrate, so I don’t know the answer, but it’s a juicy question: Is the Obama administration effectively paying a company to advertise the free cell phones as Obama Phones?  Or was the administration aware of the practice, and have they done anything to stop it?  I’m sure the mainstream media are hard on the case, investigating the Obama administration in that relentless way they do.

You can learn more about the program — which, if not begun by President Obama, seems to have grown bloated in his term — from Rep Tim Griffin’s video:

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Twolfgcd

    Very alarming if true! I have no problem with helping people have phones for emergencies, but will we be paying for their texting, data usage fees, etc., as well? And this smells a lot like trying to bribe people for their vote!

    • gueppebarre

      Well gee whiz, ya think?

    • Cynnibun

      Any cellphone with or wiothout service will dial 911 and go through no need for plans. THERE you now have your emergency phone. This is ridiculous!

      I hope one day to afford an Iphone like the lady with 3 kids a wic check and an ebt card, buying steak and shrimp in front of me in line; while I buy ramen noodles.

  • Bobby B.

    In my neighborhood there is a plague of disability. Rather than compete, retrain, accept lower wages, folks up and down my street are signing up for disability. Doctors are in on the scam.

  • Chris

    Does anybody remember Flip Wilson? Close your eyes and listen to this video again. Is this not Geraldine reincarnated?

    • Lanceman

      Geraldine? I was thinking Weird Harold of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids fame.

  • eforhan

    They’ve already changed the website. Thanks for the screenshot!

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Thanks for pointing that out, eforhan!

  • John Haas

    Began during the Reagan administration, in fact.

  • Scot Miller

    So in the absence of evidence that Obama or the Obama administration have anything directly to do with a website with his name and image (, the only logical conclusion is that Obama and/or the Obama administration most likely hijacked a government program begun under Ronald Reagan in order to buy votes for Obama. It couldn’t possibly be the case that some telephone company tried to capitalize on the popularity of Obama in certain communities in order to attract them to acquire a federally subsidized phone from that company. Why, think of the hundreds of people who might vote for Obama that wouldn’t otherwise vote for him without getting a phone with his name somehow attached to it. Obama and his people are evil geniuses! This is much more serious than voter id laws that will suppress the voting in certain ethnic communities…. I’m so glad you have exposed the Cheater-in-Chief for what he is.

    • John Haas

      Scot Miller, you seem to be insinuating that the problem here is corporations–which, may I remind you, are people, my friend–and their standardless pursuit of profits, which might, says you, be the cause of some of our problems.

      The heretical corrolary being that government–wait, un-GOP government that is–is not, in fact, the cause of all our problems.

      Haven’t yopu heard that government–well, at least, Obama–was opposed taking out Osama bin Laden, and Mr.-O-man had to be manhandled and muzzled so the operat ion could be carried out?

      Un-GOP government is that bad. Yes it is.

      You, my friend, have failed to grasp the true essence, the beating, throbbing heart, of this here blog.

      • Timothy Dalrymple

        John, see my response to Scot. Of course it could be an unscrupulous company. OF COURSE. I didn’t think I had to state the obvious. But the government also contracts with companies to raise awareness around certain government programs. The question here — and I’m just raising the question, and wishing that someone would investigate a little further — is whether that was the case in this instance.

        And even when I linked to that behind-the-scenes story of the lead-up to the bin Laden raid — a link for which I apologized, as the source proved not credible — it was never the claim (in the story linked) that Obama “opposed taking out Osama bin Laden” but that he dragged his feet on green-lighting that operation until more hawkish people in the administration forced the issue.

        • John Haas

          That’s odd, considering the Secretary of Defense at the time, Robert Gates, opposed the operation (he recalled Operation Eagle Claw), and it was Obama that made the final decision.

          But just a few years later, there he is, “sympathiz[ing] with those who waged the attacks” against our consulate in Libya.

          You can take the anti-colonialist out of Kenya, it seems, but you can’t take the Kenyan out of the anti-colonialist.

          In other news, the John Birch Society continues to maintain that Eisenhower was a Communist. Their descendents here are wondering if someone can’t investigate that a little further.

          • Bob Wiley

            You can tell if the argument starts to cut near the bone when Mr. Haas starts to weigh in. Probably ate too much of the free cheese in the good old days of government handouts.

          • John Haas

            You mean we’ll be able to get cheese on our Shari’a?!

            That’s it!

            Undecided no more!

          • Bob Wiley

            Nice you took a break from your Hobby Lobby protest. Waiting for your analysis of the timeline of White House statements on the Benghazi attack. Hope your cell plan includes rollover minutes.

          • John Haas

            “Waiting for your analysis of the timeline of White House statements on the Benghazi attack.”

            Now, there’s an issue with legs.

            What are they hiding, and who are they hiding it for? Where are they hiding it? How many of our tax dollars are they wasting in the process?

            Was the White House involved in sponsoring the attack? Were “Fast & Furious” guns somehow expedited to the Libyan terrorists, and used in the attack? Did the attackers coordinate their efforts using Obamaphones?

            I strongly advise pushing that line over the next forty days.

          • Bob Wiley

            They must have slipped ‘shrooms in you Chick-fil-a sandwich.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Of course it could just be an unscrupulous company, Scot. I thought that was obvious, and I would say that’s the more likely scenario. I’m just saying it’s an interesting question, and worth investigating. After all, it’s not implausible that a company whose sole purpose (apparently, at least) is to raise awareness and educate the public on the free government cell phone program would be contracted to do so by the government, right?

      • Scot Miller

        Timothy, I think you misunderstand the point of my sarcastic comment. I’m not defending Obama. I’m criticizing your argument, which amounts to nothing but innuendo and appeal to ignorance. I would have hoped that someone trained in philosophy and arguments would have been a bit more critical of his own arguments. I guess that no one can ever fully escape one’s confirmation biases. (Maybe that’s why you were too quick to post the “behind the scenes story” that even you admit lacks credibility.)

        There is huge difference between partisan thinking and critical thinking. The partisan is eager to attack and find fault in those with whom he disagrees, but rarely is self-reflective about his own positions. The critical thinker is willing to criticize others, but is more interested in being sure that she has the best arguments on her side, and so she examines her own ideas with more care and caution. This post and your responses to comments sound like something a partisan would say (maybe Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh or Mike Huckabee), but not someone trained in philosophical thinking and good arguments. Oh, well, we all have bad days….

        • Timothy Dalrymple

          Scot, I find this post bizarre. I said nothing remotely implying that you were defending Obama instead of criticizing my argument. Yes, I know you were criticizing my argument, and yes, I knew in the first place that it could just be a company out to make a buck (although it’s not clear how this company makes money). Please do me the compliment of assuming that I possess the modicum of intelligence that would be required to know those two things.

          The point is, I was not offering an argument. I was not concluding that the Obama administration is funding Obama Phones. I don’t know whether that’s the case or not. I just think, in the evolution of this story, that’s the next question to ask. But suddenly the Obamaphiles who read the blog are up in arms that I would dare to ask a question of the Great One. Apparently you must know the answer to a question before you can ask it publicly.

          Blogs can be used to ask questions. Really, there’s nothing wrong with it. There’s nothing wrong with asking whether the Obama administration might have contracted with a company to raise awareness of the Lifelink cell phone program, and then that company marketed the phones as “Obama Phones.” Even if it were true, it wouldn’t be such a terrible thing. It would not horribly tarnish the Obama administration. It would be a minor story and would not, I’m sure, affect his reelection chances. So please. Relax.

          • Timothy Dalrymple

            Scot, I apologize. I’m getting too frustrated here. I assumed that you were criticizing the argument *and* that you’re an Obama partisan. That, for better or worse, is almost always how it works. When I post something critical of conservatives or of a conservative figure, it’s 99% of the time conservatives who object to the argument. And when I post something critical of liberals or a liberal figure, it’s 99% of the time liberals (and fans of that figure) who object to the argument. But there are exceptions. And for all I know, you’re a hard core GOP enthusiast.

            But I do get frustrated when I read comments that come across as insulting or demeaning. I get over-frustrated and respond too strongly. I apologize for that.

  • Shaun Strauss
  • Bulmaro

    one question, is this tax or benifit voted on every year or how long is it currently valid fork?

    • Geary

      Bularmo … like any “good” gubmint program with a bureaucracy behind it, it’s “perpetual”. Or as a former US Chief Exec once said: No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. Government programs, once launched, never disappear. Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth! (RR)

  • Frankie

    First of all, I want to know if it’s the new IPhone 5, if so, I want one!! Oh wait, I don’t qualify because I have a job and pay taxes. Secondly, how many of those Obamaphones get political text messages sent from the Obama campaign? I have a sneaky suspicion that those Obamaphones may be being used by Obama’s campaign to get the message out via text or automated calling. Can someone get a hold of that woman’s phone to see what else is being promised if she gets her toothless fat butt to the polls? It better be quick cause they’re busy cleaning up the damage!!!

  • PTL

    The Left has no moral or ethics. You cannot question something that doesn’t exists. You know,
    something like patriotism.

  • Gilbert Ratchet

    “The program is paid for by telecommunications companies”

    By which you mean, it is paid for by other telephone users. Or is the “Federal Universal Service Charge” on my bill going to something else?

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I thought I made that clear?

  • Mike

    I like the term “Obama’s Wel-phone” myself. I have a “work-phone”, because I have to work to pay for things.

  • Francis

    Some bozo is trying to make a quick buck selling stuff, that’s all. It’s not a gov’t program, so he’s trying to make money off telecom companies and Lifeline fees. You can check and have already been registered, but the sites are devoid of content. Apparently are waiting to see if he wins the election. I’m sure both Obama and Romney have more important things to do than hunt down every person who wants to use their likeness and image to sell stuff.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      But that’s the thing, Francis, they don’t actually sell anything. It’s just an information site. They don’t provide the cell phones (and remember, they’re free) and they don’t provide the phone service. So the question is how they make their money. Perhaps they make a cut when they refer someone over to one of the cell service providers. Or perhaps they’re employed to raise awareness on the program, in the same way that companies are often contracted to raise awareness about welfare programs and new medicare benefits and etc.

      As for, I don’t know whether that’s the same company preparing for the possibility or just someone picking up on the meme and preparing a joke site. Who knows, at this point.

      • Francis

        Well, if you dig further (and I have wasted enough time on this already), you see is a cheap WordPress site with rotating pictures (and your Obama photo is still there). It refers you to which has lots of ads. All the attention you are giving it are going to line this person’s pockets well… blogs like people clicking on ads. My guess is that the site was created only recently, to take advantage of people searching on this term. It is funny that you are willing to insinuate lots of things about Obama from but are willing to let drop so easily. Don’t you think this is just a bit irresponsible?

  • KBK

    According to the website, 35% of the people in the country qualify. And you get 250 free minutes. I think that goes well beyond “911 access”. I”m paying about $80 for a shared senior plan with 450 shared minutes, and subsidizing the 35% so they will vote for the man who gives them their Obamaphone and “free money”.

  • I do not think this is the message to be sent. There has always been programs designed to help low income people to tie this to the President just because he wants to help those who need help is irresponsible.

    As far as we know this lady could be a Republican plant. There is no way a President would be associated with buying votes because that is a federal crime. It looks just bad as she sounds.

    I do not believe she wants everyone to vote for the President because of a free phone. That is just as ridiculous as politicians buying votes with liquor and chicken. It did happen. The politician resigned and he is possibly being prosecuted.

  • AJ

    I can’t fathom how stupid people must be to think that’s an official government website and Obama phones are real LOL. Are people in this country seriously this dumb?

  • SDR

    The image is still there…. just have to click on one of the tabs across the top:

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Yeah, that’s interesting. Thanks for noting that. It’s peculiar to watch the changes they’re making.

  • gsr

    I do have a problem paying for people’s phones and even paying for free school lunch and now, breakfast. All these programs need to be cut immediately. People need to be responsible for themselves. If a parent can’t give a child a $3 for lunch or better still, pack a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with an apple, something is wrong, terribly wrong.

    Liberalism creates dependents.

  • CRW

    I have one of these phones. It is NOT an iPhone! It is a very cheap phone…Kyocera Jax. The provider is paid $9.25 per month from the Universal Service fund. For that, they give me 250 minutes & 250 text messages each month. The provider has an option to double the minutes & texts for $5 per month, paid by me. So, I’m getting 500 mins & 500 texts for $5.00 per month.

    I also have an Android phone, that I pay for myself. So, why do I have an Obamaphone? Because I have a dirty job in a print shop, and I get ink on my phone, and I load/unload trucks in the heat, so I sweat on my phone…and I don’t want to mess up my nice Android phone. So, I signed up for an Obamaphone, and that’s the one I use at work.

    I don’t feel entitled…if the program ended tomorrow, I wouldn’t be marching in the streets to save it. But I am grateful…the program does help out this working guy…

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Not *exactly* what it was intended for, though, was it? No offense. I’m glad it’s helpful. But it’s supposed to help people who cannot afford phones by themselves, right?

    • Owen

      I think you should know you are leech. Perhaps people in your day to day life are too nice or modest to say so, but that’s exactly what you are. You knowingly have other people pay for your phone even though you can by your own admission afford one on your own. Why do you feel so entitled to stake a claim on the earnings of other citizens?

      A civilization will not long endure if composed of people like you.

      • Jeremy Forbing

        This person is not a leech. Most of us have less physically demanding jobs than loading and unloading trucks in the heat, my recent work history is almost all cushy office work, so this person contributes their labor to the economy. And I am willing to bet they pay more in taxes than $9.25. So they are putting in more than they are taking. Does that sound like a leech? In this economy, members of the working class– the people the Republicans claim to want to help even though their focus is tax cuts for the wealthy which will increase taxes on the middle– are not in a position to turn down a free service if they qualify. The real problem is the kind of ignorance that says a hard-working person who enrolls in a government program to help them (in a very tiny way) cut down on expenses is automatically a leech who is undermining civilization. A small program that helps people with a $10 a month expense who are on an economic level where that makes a difference is unethical, while the owners of big corporations need bailouts and decreased taxes and other forms of corporate welfare?

  • What incentive do I have to work when I can get free food, housing, healthcare, and now a phone? Now, I do work and work hard, but why do I feel like a loser for supporting my own family instead of a winner?

  • “It’s clearly not what the law originally intended”:

    Just another “enhancement” under the Obama administration…

  • Badger Pundit

    It’s not clear to me they’ve changed the website. You may just be confused about where you got the screenshot — one of the pages still on it seems to be the one you took the screenshot of:

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I assure you that Obama’s image was on the landing page. Even what they have on the page you mention is only a part of what the original page looked like. It was made up to look similar to the White House website.

  • Samuel PG

    I apologize for the tone of my comment, and invite you not to publish it, as it comes across with differently than I would have wanted. My main points remain, but I am sorry for reacting harshly.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      No worries, Sam. I’m really not trying to insinuate, I’m just trying to point to an open question. I’ve been fairly open that I think it’s unlikely that the Obama administration contracts with this company. But it’s possible, and those who don’t even want to investigate the possibility are, I think, wearing partisan blinders.

      As for the evangelicalism, the Evangelical Channel features a variety of evangelical bloggers who are free to write on the issues that interest them. If you peruse the blog, you’ll find that most posts do have a faith angle. But not every post is required to have one. Hope that helps clarify.

      Thanks, and do come back.

  • Calvin Orland

    Try explaining this to the blind lemming in the video. Her great and glorious savior, B. Hussein Obama got her that phone! The ‘Man’ that keeps her down had nothing to do with it!

  • CJ Merry

    You people aren’t this sheepish are you? This website being a .net and all these adds for these phones have nothing to do with anything in the government other than trying to make it look like there giving a “FREE” phone to people receiving aid. The phone is slightly reduced just as an advertisement anywhere else but there are higher charges attached to it. It’s no different than gold coins from THE US MINT, or people believing anything called Federal must be part of the government. They state in the add “LIFELINE” and a program by the federal government but this is a marketing ploy and nothing more. They want the person on welfare to think there qualifying for something special when it’s not at all. Target marketing… nothing more. Why is it the right can target market you? I would think that conservatives would be smarter than to fall for this bait and switch but I can see how easy it is to make you upset… just mention that someone who is poor get’s something for “FREE”. Please, use your common sense.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      CJ, go read more about the Lifeline and Lifelink programs. There may be fees for overages, but yes, the phones are free and you get a service plan with a minimal amount of minutes for free. The intention is to give people the opportunity to use a phone in an emergency, or for a job interview, or etc. The basic facts of the program are not in dispute.

  • Deltanamos

    I think it’s a bit of a stretch to assume (or even insinuate at this point) that the administration put up Just because you don’t know who registered the site doesn’t give you leave to speculate, without any sort of inference, who it could have been. What would Obama, whose campaign acumen is recognized by even his most outspoken critics, have to gain politically by tying his name to a welfare program. Even if he would win over a few welfare voters most of the electorate would be disgusted… not worth the risk to a team as skilled as his is at messaging and campaigning.
    Since the whois on shows that the site is registered to, a site dedicated to keeping users anonymous, then it is even more unlikely that government agencies were involved. The overwhelming majority of official government sites will have accessible registration information. Occum’s razor tells me that this was probably another domain that freegovernmentcellphones registered in order to redirect traffic after the “Obama phone” story was first dropped in 2009.
    Of course, if you wanted to make an issue more complicated (and controversial) than it needs to be, you could cook up an Obama phone conspiracy. Why the heck not? He’s already a Kenyan Muslim Marxist who wants to form a new world order in the form of a Caliphate, right? By overlooking common sense in this fashion you could also get more hits to your articles, which I suspect is at least a partial explanation for the lack of journalistic integrity in this piece.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      The site went online in 2011. The fact that it’s .net and runs ads is not terribly relevant. No one’s suggesting the government is running the site. The open question is whether the government contracted with a private company that specializes in raising awareness about government welfare programs, and that private company decided (with or without the knowledge of someone in the administration) to advertise “ObamaPhones” in the year prior to the election. The fact that the company goes out of the way to conceal its information does not count substantially for or against either possibility.

      Campaigns do all sorts of things that, if revealed to the electorate, would cause disgust. On both sides.

      I’m touched by your concern for my journalistic integrity, but I was really just raising a question. As I’ve said several times now, it’s probably just a private company that makes a buck on this one way or another. But it’s an open question. That’s all.

      And please quit with the birther nonsense. I’ll do you the compliment of not assuming you’re a truther if you do me the compliment of not assuming I’m a birther. I don’t know of any birthers who read this blog.

  • txpatriot

    It is true that the Lifeline Program, as funded by the Universal Service Fund, was established in the 1996 Federal Telecommunications Act, which was signed by Bill Clinton in 1996.

    However, it was the Republican-controlled House that wrote the bill in the first place (with intense lobbying by the telephone industry). In other words, the Lifeline and Universal Service Programs, as originally envisioned, had bi-partisan support.

    But as you note, the well-intentioned program has been abused by unscrupulous wireless companies. Everytime they give away a “free” phone, they profit off of us, the ratepayers of America (essentially the same as the taxpayers of America).

    This is a scam that needs to stop yesterday.

  • John Haas

    “Frankly, ten thousand or even ten million black ladies trying to get free cell phones can’t do half the damage to America as three dozen neoconservative operatives, all highly educated, impeccably credentialed, and tax-paying, trying to maneuver America into endless wars in the Middle East.”

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      The free cell phone program was always a minor issue, more indicative or illustrative than essential and critical.