Health Care Gets Ready To Rumble

Everybody expected that President Obama would have a tough fight, trying to overhaul health care. But nobody predicted that the debate over health care would provoke physical fights, which is what happened this week. Guest host Daniel Zwerdling speaks with NPR News Analyst Juan Williams about the continuing health care debate around the country and the confirmation of Judge Sonia Sotomayor as Supreme Court justice.

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DANIEL ZWERDLING, host:

And everybody expected that President Obama would have another tough fight trying to overhaul health care. Sure enough, Congress didn't pass the legislation he wanted before its summer break, but nobody predicted that the debate over health care would provoke physical fights, and that's what happened this week.

NPR News analyst Juan Williams joins us now to talk about where the health care battle might be going. Hey, Juan.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Dan.

ZWERDLING: Before we talk about that bizarre town meeting, we should say that there was some very good news for President Obama this week. Judge Sonia Sotomayor will become Justice Sotomayor today.

WILLIAMS: Today. This very day she'll be sworn in by Chief Justice John Roberts. And this is a real moment in terms of American history. Obviously the first Hispanic woman on the court, only the third woman on the court, only the third minority person on the court out of 110, 111, I guess, Supreme Court justices in our history.

So there's a lot of attention to this in terms of the historic nature. In terms of the balance of the court it doesn't seem to have much consequence because the man she's replacing, David Souter, really has a very similar outlook on the law to soon-to-be Justice Sotomayor, possibly with the exception of her stand on criminal issues.

Because her background is really interesting as a prosecutor and a judge. She's pretty tough on crime, and so we'll see where that goes.

ZWERDLING: Well, now let's get to the town hall meeting. So in St. Louis this week, I mean, six people were charged, most of them for assault. What's going on here? Is this a real sign of a genuine backlash grassroots movement? Some people are saying this is orchestrated in some way.

WILLIAMS: Well, yeah, it's orchestrated. We're talking politics. I mean, really, the politics here have shifted from Washington during early August, the first week or recess. So it's kind of just politics has been taken to the street, Daniel, in a very interesting way over an issue that's not war but health care reform.

So it's not fake. It's not the case that people are being paid. But the frenzy's being driven in large part by polarized politics and I think polarized media coverage that is feeding this. So, yes, there's real concern over high spending potentially on health care reform and how it might drive up the deficit.

But when you hear people talking about things like socialized medicine or rationing care to seniors or why didn't Teddy Kennedy go to Canada, you know, if Canada's system is so good, you understand how these issues can quickly be distorted.

ZWERDLING: And some people have even charged that the Obama administration is behaving like Nazis.

WILLIAMS: Well, that's way out of line. That's the conservative media again driving much of this. And so then you get groups like SEIU, the Service Employees Union, or AARP, or Organizing for America, the Obama group, now trying to put their people in place to make sure their voices are heard at town hall meetings versus Americans for Prosperity or the Tea Party Coalition, that are making sure that opposition voices are being heard.

And I think sometimes these people get over-weaned, if you will, and then a physical conflict comes and you have police escorting members of Congress. It's not discussion. It just becomes shouting, in the media almost like political theater.

ZWERDLING: You know, I'm a little embarrassed to say, though, that when it comes to the health care debate - I mean, I'm a lay citizen, I hear NPR, I read the papers - I'm very confused about what the details of the debate are about. What about you? You've been following this closely.

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, if you look at it like - I guess I break it down to you this way: One, the argument's about reducing the cost of Medicare, the program that helps seniors, over the long run, because the trajectory is just so damning in terms of increased spending. So how do you do that?

Because if you can reduce Medicare spending now, you can cover insurance for the 46 million people who don't have health insurance, which is a big issue. But to do that, then you have to squeeze the hospitals, squeeze the insurance companies, and they're fighting back. That's one set of issues.

The second set of issues, I'd say, is look at how the government is trying to reengineer health care systems in general. Do a better job of delivery, do a better job of paying doctors for overall care rather than for emergency or chronic care. That's all part of this conversation. And so it's like a two-pronged thing.

ZWERDLING: But now be brutally honest: Am I feeling confused because I just haven't been listening carefully enough or is the administration and the opponents, are they not describing their plans easily enough for people like me to understand?

WILLIAMS: I think they're not doing a good job of describing it and I think that's why we see the poll numbers for President Obama's handling of the health care issue falling so badly for him, and that is crippling. He needs to do a better job of explaining it, a better job of defending it, rather than leaving it to the Congress.

ZWERDLING: NPR News analyst Juan Williams. Juan, thanks for coming in.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Daniel.

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