Rising to the occasion. President Obama took back the reins of the splintered health care fight. Will it last? Is he feared enough and respected enough to get the sweeping change he's promised?
The fine print. We know more about the details now, but which details will actually become law? What will change in your own insurance? Today we lay it out.
And finally, why so much hate? That congressman who yelled `liar,' the fears that the president wanted to indoctrinate school kids. Was all this venom against Barack Obama unavoidable?
Hi, I'm Norah O'Donnell sitting in for Chris. Welcome to the show.
Ceci Connolly covers the big health care debate for The Washington Post, Joe Klein is a TIME magazine columnist, Helene Cooper covers the White House for The New York Times, and Howard Fineman is chief political correspondent for Newsweek.
First up, President Obama may have lost ground during August with those free-for-alls, otherwise known as town hall meetings, stealing the scene in the health care debate. Well, his Wednesday night speech to Congress showed the president knew he needed to take back control.
President BARACK OBAMA: The time for games has passed. Now is the season for action. Now is when we must bring the best ideas of both parties together and show the American people that we can still do what we were sent here to do. Now is the time to deliver on health care.
O'DONNELL: Now, polls taken since then show that the president did find some success in reasserting command, at least for a while. And of course, there was that outburst from Congressman Joe Wilson, the guy who yelled, "You lie!" Well, most other Republicans were more polite; but still, some said forget about it. Not polite? Listen to what Rush Limbaugh said.
Mr. RUSH LIMBAUGH: (From Thursday) That speech last night was a fraud. It was dishonest. It demeaned the office of the presidency. Having attacked and lied throughout this thing, he then claims he wants to work with Republicans, with whom he has not met since April.
O'DONNELL: Howard, you can always count on Rush. But seriously, the Republicans say they have not been consulted. Does it matter? How's the president doing with his own party?
Mr. HOWARD FINEMAN (Newsweek Senior Washington Correspondent): Well, I think Rush was kind of right about that. I don't think the Republicans are really much in the equation now. I thought the president was both broader and more focused. What he was really saying is, `Look, we've got to regulate the health insurance business and we've got to try to cover everybody, get everybody to contribute. And it's not going to be that much different from what you already know.' In that sense it wasn't change you can believe in, despite the rhetoric; it was sort of the status quo you can believe in, just better regulated.
O'DONNELL: Ceci, you're covering every single little detail of this for The Washington Post, and you've been reporting the purse--the president is personally lobbying members of Congress, trying to twist arms, right?
Ms. CECI CONNOLLY (The Washington Post): Right. I sort of think of him these days a little bit as the lobbyist in chief, because what he recognizes is that, as much as that speech Wednesday night, as well as his big rally in Minnesota over the weekend were all about getting the public behind this, because he had kind of lost them in August, equally important is that inside game. He knows that he needs to get votes up on Capitol Hill. And he's really taking a page from LBJ and he's doing it one on one, very personally, phone calls, visits to the White House.
O'DONNELL: But what about Max Baucus, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, who's going to report out next week? Is he going to yield to the president? Is the president going to get what he wants?
Ms. CONNOLLY: I don't think that Max Baucus is going to be given much choice soon. He has been given a great deal of running room--months, you could say--to work with his gang of six and come up with a bipartisan deal, and it just hasn't happened.
O'DONNELL: Joe, one of the things the president made very clear in this speech, or he claimed that this is not going to add one dime to our deficit. But has he explained how that is?
Mr. JOE KLEIN (Time Columnist): Read my lips. You know, it's a--I think it's--I think it's a--I think it's a problem, and I think that the source of revenue that they've located, this tax on, you know, high-priced insurance policies...
O'DONNELL: Cadillac plans.
Mr. KLEIN: ...is inelegant and ridiculous. It's going to trickle down to other policyholders. I hope the president's first idea, which was, you know, a limitation on the deductions that rich people can take, was a really good idea. And...
O'DONNELL: But if you can't prove that it's going to be deficit-neutral, then how do you sell it?
Mr. KLEIN: You can never prove that something's going to be deficit-neutral.
O'DONNELL: Helene, you cover the White House. How do they feel like they did this week? Did the president take control?
Ms. HELENE COOPER (White House Correspondent, The New York Times): I think they're pretty happy with--the people at the White House I've talked to are pretty at peace with how it went this week. For them, you have to understand, this was much more about unifying their base and unifying the Democrats. You know, as Howard said, they've pretty much given up on the Republicans. They'll say this is bipartisan because it has elements of Republican ideas in it. And even if they don't get the Republicans' vote, they can still say, you know, on certain levels--like with malpractice, for instance--that they've made some--a few bows to Republican concerns. But it was much more, for the White House, with making sure he's got his Democrats on board.
Mr. FINEMAN: It was lightly...
O'DONNELL: And wasn't that some of it...
Mr. FINEMAN: ...sprinkled with Republicanism, you know. Very lightly.
O'DONNELL: And wasn't that part of it, too, that the president needed to really take back that mantle as this transformational leader, at least show that he's bold, and that was what the speech was about, too?
Mr. FINEMAN: Well, I think he's trying to be operationally bold...
Mr. FINEMAN: ...while at the same time reassuring everybody, `You're not going to lose your insurance if you have it. What we're going to try to do is spread the risk and regulate on a federal level an industry that has never been regulated, really, on a federal level.' That's sort of the core of what he's saying, which is both a change message and a reassuring one at the same time.
Mr. KLEIN: Right.
O'DONNELL: Well, there's still people out there that are scared in this country...
Mr. FINEMAN: Yes, they are.
O'DONNELL: ...about what's going on. But...
Mr. FINEMAN: And especially the financial end of it, as Joe was saying.
O'DONNELL: But--and that scared, people being scared, is being fueled by this fearmongering in some ways. Did Joe Wilson's outburst from the floor there, did that help or hurt the White House, Helene?
Ms. COOPER: I think the White House was thrilled with Joe Wilson's outburst, to tell you the truth. Did you see Nancy Pelosi, the look on her face, you know?
O'DONNELL: What do you think Rahm was doing when he picked up the phone?
Ms. COOPER: It's like, `Oh, yeah, hi. Thanks for your apology.' You know, that's one of those cases where they can sort of stand back and let the Republicans hurt themselves.
Mr. KLEIN: My...
Ms. COOPER: You disagree.
Mr. KLEIN: My first reaction was, `And the voice of the cuckoo is heard in the land.'
Mr. FINEMAN: Hm.
Mr. KLEIN: But over the succeeding days, it has become a real debate about whether or not you're going to insert in the bill a provision that people are going to have to prove their citizenship. Now, that is a ridiculous provision, because there are all these elderly people who show up at hospitals all the time. They're going to have to locate their birth certificates that
are, you know, were lost 40 years ago? That's crazy.
O'DONNELL: Could that make it in the bill, that they're so worried about this looking like they'll give health care to illegal immigrants that they're going to write that line in there, or write in that line, `this could not be used for abortions'?
Ms. CONNOLLY: It could very possibly make it into that bill, because you have to keep in mind that what the White House wants more than anything is to sign a health care bill. So if it means writing in language like that, I think that they will be open to it. I think, though, that this issue around coverage for immigrants, whether undocumented or here legally as citizens,
really speaks to how complicated health care is.
Ms. CONNOLLY: And the fact that one out of every $5 1/2 spent in this country today goes to health care. So it touches just about everything that you can imagine.
O'DONNELL: If you...
Mr. FINEMAN: Norah, the other thing is that if they're going to get conservative Democrats, the so-called blue dogs, that's a kind of thing where they can say, `Hey, we're helping you out on that. We're addressing that cultural issue for you,' if you will.
Mr. KLEIN: News flash: We are paying for the health care of...
Ms. CONNOLLY: Right.
Mr. KLEIN: ...illegal immigrants right now.
O'DONNELL: Anyway, because if they go into a hospital they get covered.
Mr. KLEIN: Right. If someone gets their, you know, their hand chopped off in one of these meat-packing plants and they go to the hospital, we're going to treat them. We do it now.
O'DONNELL: Ceci, if you had to point to the three top big things people want to know about what's going to be in this health care bill, what are they?
Ms. CONNOLLY: Well, if there's a bill, because I'm not certain yet, I would definitely take the page from Howard, which is there is great support for the idea of insurance market reforms. So finally saying to insurance companies, `You can't deny people coverage based on pre-existing conditions. There shouldn't be caps on the insurance that you get,' that sort of thing. But the reason that it gets tricky is that the insurance industry only wants to go along with that if they get all of these 46 million or so new customers.
Ms. CONNOLLY: So you really squeeze on the balloon there. A couple of other things people should expect is something called an individual mandate. It's a requirement that every person in America carry health insurance. Some...
O'DONNELL: Just like car insurance.
Ms. CONNOLLY: Exactly.
O'DONNELL: If you want to drive, you got to have it.
Ms. CONNOLLY: That's the way the president explains it. With some kind of discounts or tax credits for people who have trouble affording it. He's also talking now about some tax credits for small businesses, help covering their employees. Those are some of the big themes right now.
Mr. KLEIN: There are three big things. Two big mandates: Insurance companies have to cover everybody, everybody has to buy in. The third big thing are these exchanges, which are kind of like health insurance superstores, which is going to make it a lot easier for individuals who don't have big corporate plans to buy in at a rate that is comparable to big corporate plans.
Mr. KLEIN: And it's going to be great for small businesses.
Mr. FINEMAN: And the insurance companies will sabotage it if they can, if that exchange includes the public option. That's what we've been debating about.
O'DONNELL: Very interesting.
Mr. KLEIN: But it's not going to.
Mr. FINEMAN: Yeah, I know it's not going to. Yeah, it won't. It's dead.
Mr. KLEIN: Public option ain't going to be there.
O'DONNELL: All right, getting back to where we began this discussion. As for a bottom line, we asked The Matthews Meter, 12 of the regulars, has the president got command back in this debate? And the answer, it's unanimous, 12-zip. Howard and Joe, you're in that group. Howard, he got it back?
Mr. FINEMAN: Well, I--yeah. I thought it was the president's speech. I thought it was one of his best combinations of practicality and focus, with a little bit of philosophy there at the end about the role of government, which I thought was useful. And I thought it was one of the best simple explanations that he gave, where he said, `Look, gang, we got to do this for the good of everybody.'
O'DONNELL: And, Ceci, is he going to be able to keep it through this fall, this new control, this new command, this mojo?
Ms. CONNOLLY: Well, we shift back into the messy business of legislating, and we're already hearing about additional delays up there on Capitol Hill. So it's not going to be easy. But I think one of the things that was most powerful about that speech that the president gave was he spoke to Main Street in a way that this conversation...
Ms. CONNOLLY: ...had gotten away from.
Mr. KLEIN: Yeah, I think that one of the things the White House may have learned in August is that it's better to have him out there, even if he's being accused of overexposure...
Mr. KLEIN: ...than to not have him out here--there, so you can watch all the crazies screaming about him. And so you're going to have the big speech this week about the anniversary of the financial meltdown, and he will find some way to be in your face on this issue until the thing gets passed.
O'DONNELL: Helene, are they feeling that way in the White House, that he's got his mojo back, that they're on campaign mode, that they're going to...
Ms. COOPER: I--they definitely are. But he always does well when he—when he steps up to the plate and when he can give--he can deliver a very good speech. And he was definitely getting a lot of complaints about being too distant and being too removed, and he's getting that in a lot of other areas, too.
Mr. FINEMAN: They looked at what had gone wrong in the summer and they—and they dealt with it, which shows that they can learn from what's going on here.
O'DONNELL: No doubt.
All right, before we break, President Obama's big health care speech this week reminded many observers of President Clinton's address to Congress on the same topic 16 years ago this month. Once Clinton made his sales pitch, it was time for "Saturday Night Live" to weigh in. So here's the immortal Phil Hartman.
Mr. PHIL HARTMAN: (As Bill Clinton, from September 25, 1993) This past Wednesday night, I laid out the basics of a health care plan that would guarantee every American a comprehensive package of medical coverage. If you are a citizen of the United States, you cannot be turned down. That's right. If you have an obstructed, calcified pancreas, you qualify. If you have a prolapsed colon, you qualify. We simply must draw the line somewhere. We cannot pay for everything. For example, cooties are covered, but not the heebie-jeebies. Cabin fever? Covered. Blotto fever? Not covered. Fumble-itis, covered, but butter fingers, not covered. Breast augmentation? Covered. Breast reduction, not covered.
O'DONNELL: All right. When we come back, that congressman who yelled `liar.' We'll get into it. And here's Conan O'Brien's take.
Mr. CONAN O'BRIEN: Republican Congressman Joe Wilson's apologized for calling President Obama a liar during his speech on health care. Yeah. Obama accepted Wilson's apology, then invited him to appear before a death panel. That was not...
O'DONNELL: All right. So why all the hatred? Not just from one congressman, but from many quarters. Was it unavoidable for this groundbreaking president, or did he make some mistakes to give permission slips to the haters? Plus scoops and predictions right out of the notebooks of these top reporters. Be right back.
O'DONNELL: Welcome back. The summer was rife with craziness in those town halls, but September has sort of been just as nutty. There was the uproar over the president's speech to school children, with opponents warning kids needed to be shielded from the president. Then there was the congressman who called the president a liar during his speech. What is causing the anti-Obama outrage? Is this something different from what other presidents have faced? We put it to The Matthews Meter, 12 of the regulars. Is the anti-Obama venom unavoidable, or is it partly a result of his own mistakes? Well, six say it was unavoidable, but six say he partly brought it on himself.
Howard and Joe, you're in the meter and you're split. Howard, you say the president has made some mistakes. What's he done wrong?
Mr. FINEMAN: Well, I think it relates to what Helene was saying in the last segment, which is he hasn't always spoken to Main Street. And I think in his situation, being who he is as the historical figure that he is, the change agent that he is, the need to--he needed to be and needs to be ever aware, maybe unfairly so, but ever aware of reassuring people on the right side of the street on Main Street.
O'DONNELL: Joe, you say the craziness and anti-Obama hating was unavoidable.
Mr. KLEIN: Well, I was--I was at some town meetings this summer, most recently in Arkansas, and this is an awful lot about race. You just can't avoid it. I mean, he was born black. But it isn't only about the fact that he's black or the fact that his middle name is Hussein. It's a fact—about the fact that in middle America, among white people, especially working-class white people, they're seeing all of this stuff: They're seeing Latinos in Arkansas, quite a few of them, move into the neighborhoods; they're seeing South Asians, you know, running a lot of businesses; they're seeing intermarriage; they're seeing all these things that they find threatening, and they believe that the America that they knew, which was always kind of a myth, is disappearing.
O'DONNELL: Why is this being voiced now in this health care debate?
Mr. KLEIN: Because they're being egged on by demagogues in the Republican Party, by boss Rush Limbaugh. And I call him the boss because there isn't a single Republican elected official who's willing to call him out on his lies.
Mr. FINEMAN: Yeah, that's true.
O'DONNELL: Helene, there were people that hated President Bush. There were people who hated President Clinton. There are now people that hate President Obama. Why is it about race?
Ms. COOPER: I think it's about race for two reasons. One, on one side you have a lot of whites, particularly in the South, who are just really angry at the idea that there is a black president. That's something that they just don't like. We've had several stories in the Times recently about sort of--sort of some of the numbers that President Obama got, for instance, in
South Carolina, in Arkansas; the number of whites who voted for him, the very low number, and they're very angry. And then you have the flip side, you have a lot of blacks who love Obama and who are so emotionally attached to him because he's black. And I think that plays off of each other so you get—you get an electorate that's even more stratified.
Mr. FINEMAN: I think this White House—and, again, maybe unfairly—needs to constantly be sensitive to those fears that Joe was talking about. Now, it could paralyze his presidency if he does it too much. But I don't think at every moment they're aware of that the way they were during the campaign. I think they were very aware of it during the campaign. I think once they got here to Washington, once they started focusing necessarily on the economic crisis and so forth, they got away from it.
The other factor is, quote, "big government." Obama was dealt a hand where he had to act like a liberal Democrat at the beginning.
Mr. KLEIN: Right.
Mr. FINEMAN: That reinforced the fears of a lot of those people that Joe was talking about.
Ms. CONNOLLY: I'm going to be a little bit of a contrarian here, because I think going back to the beginning of the republic we've always had a certain cranky element out there who's complained and been unhappy with their leadership. It's just that they haven't had the Internet, they haven't had cable television...
Ms. CONNOLLY: ...to air those views. I mean...
Mr. KLEIN: But usually you had legitimate leaders of a political party who would shout those haters down. That's not what is happening here.
Mr. FINEMAN: Well, I...
O'DONNELL: Right. I mean, here the question, is someone pouring gasoline on what is...
Ms. COOPER: I can--I think that's absolutely people are pouring gasoline. But beyond that, remember a few weeks ago when these posts came--these polls came out that showed that President Obama's approval ratings were going down at the same time that people believed that we were--we were not out of the economic recession, but that things were starting to turn around? How do you figure that? Think about where we were back in January, when you're looking at the, you know, where the Dow Jones was and what the economy. And now people are--economists are starting to talking--to talk about the fact that we may, at some point soon, be coming out of it. It's not looking quite as dark as it was then. And yet you have these approval ratings that are plummeting. What's that about?
Mr. FINEMAN: Well, I agree with Ceci—I agree with Ceci that over time there've been hair-raising things said about presidents, whether it was Thomas Jefferson or Lincoln or Roosevelt or whatever, Franklin Roosevelt.
Mr. FINEMAN: The difference here is race. There was vitriol then; you pour the race in and you have a more volatile mix.
O'DONNELL: When we come back, scoops and predictions right out of the notebooks of these top reporters, TELL ME SOMETHING I DON'T KNOW. Be right back.
O'DONNELL: Welcome back. As Chris would say, Ceci, tell me something I don't know.
Ms. CONNOLLY: Well, Norah, even as this coming week Senator Baucus, the chairman of the Finance Committee, is saying he'll be coming out with a health care bill, the balance of power is actually beginning to shift up there in the Senate and on Capitol Hill. And it's shifting to a group of centrist Democrats in the Senate. And they have some very specific concerns about health care, the cost of health care reform, and they're going to start really weighing in on this.
Mr. KLEIN: In Afghanistan, the bad news isn't just the widespread fraud in the election, but that the nature of the fight has changed. The Taliban are standing up and fighting set piece battles. There was a nine-hour firefight the other day, I'm told by military sources, which means that the Taliban are well-organized, well-disciplined and very, very well-armed with ammunition.
Ms. COOPER: Still on the Afghanistan front, the Afghanistan war has now passed Vietnam as the longest war that this country has ever been in. And I think it's going to--it's going to be going on for a few more years to come.
Mr. FINEMAN: There's been talk that Justice John Paul Stevens may retire. I'm told by former clerks of his that it's definite, that by next spring he'll announce that he's leaving, which means that Barack Obama will have more research to do about somebody else to appoint.
O'DONNELL: Wow. That's some news. All right.
When we come back, this week's BIG QUESTION. New doubts among Democrats about doubling down in Afghanistan. So will Obama get more troops if he asks for them? Be right back.
O'DONNELL: Now the BIG QUESTION of the week: Will President Obama get more US troops in Afghanistan if he asks for them? Ceci?
Ms. CONNOLLY: Hard to say, but I think that this issue speaks to a broader challenge for President Obama, and that is keeping his liberal base happy. You hear it from gay rights groups, you hear it with respect to health care, as we've been discussing, and they have some real concerns about the level of engagement.
O'DONNELL: All right, thanks. Joe?
Mr. KLEIN: From what I understand, it's an open question as to whether he is going to ask for them. And the answer to that question is in Kabul, not in Washington, that if we don't get a really good government in Kabul out of this, it's going to be hopeless.
Ms. COOPER: I think he will get the numbers he asks for, but I think he's going to get them from Republicans, not necessarily from his base. The White House has pretty much resigned themselves to the fact that, on Afghanistan policy, most of their support is coming from the Republican Party.
Mr. FINEMAN: Well, I agree with everybody. He's going to minimize what his requests and he's—and he may even still not get it, because he's trading health care for Afghanistan.
O'DONNELL: No doubt. All right. Thanks to a great roundtable: Ceci Connolly, Joe Klein, Helene Cooper and Howard Fineman.
That's the show. Thanks for watching. Chris will be back here next week. He'll see you then.