Obama 'Outmaneuvered' On Health Care?

This is turning out to be a summer of town hall meetings and health care talk in politics. Host Scott Simon speaks with NPR news analyst Juan Williams about the debate over health care reform.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

It's turning out to be a summer of town hall meetings and health care talk in politics. Our friend, NPR News analyst Juan Williams, joins us now. Morning, Juan.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: And this has been an administration that is filled with seasoned Chicago pols who knew how to deliver voters to caucuses and the polls in the last election. The president's an old community organizer. Have they, however, so far been a little bit outmaneuvered on health care overhaul?

WILLIAMS: I think you have to say yes. And, you know, it's interesting: When you start that way, because you read some of the documents that the people on the right are using and they're citing folks like Saul Alinsky, the great Chicago organizer, a man who worked for the poor in the 1930s and onward, and someone who's actually in line, if you were to look back at the people who mentored Barack Obama when he was a young community organizer, and those folks just don't have the energy.

The New York Times went out to Iowa, did some interviews with people out there, and found that Organizing for America, the group that was so instrumental in pushing the Obama campaign, a lot of those people are suffering from battle fatigue, really don't feel the passion that a Saul Alinsky, like, would get in there and fight in these town hall meetings.

Why aren't they there with Charles Grassley, the ranking Republican on Senate Finance who's holding committee - his town hall meetings? Instead, he's hearing from people who are strongly opposed. So it's a moment when you say, in terms of organizing on the ground, as well as in Washington, where they should have defined a clear set of rules for what it is the president is standing for in health care, even if it's being negotiating on the Hill, it looks like at this moment you have to say that the Obama administration, for all their communication skills, has been outmaneuvered.

SIMON: And you mentioned the lack of clarity. It's still not clear to me this weekend if the administration is in favor of a public option or is willing to let it go. And I realize in politics the answer is yes, both.

WILLIAMS: No, but I was going to say you're a smart guy, because I don't think anybody's clear. Look, I think it comes down to this, if you listen to Robert Gibbs, the president - the White House press secretary. He said, basically, look, the president in his heart of hearts really likes the public option but he's willing to negotiate, he's willing to hear what other people have to say.

And what we've heard from some conservative Democrats, notably Kent Conrad, who's an important Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, is he doesn't think the votes are there for the public option and he is supporting the idea of cooperatives, which might have some of the same ability to provide competition for insurance companies and force them to do better in terms of not excluding people with preexisting conditions, portability, if you shift jobs and the like.

SIMON: But what's the political effect when the president refers to the public option as, I think, what was the phrase, just a sliver?

WILLIAMS: Just a sliver. Well, he says it's just part of - again, he's in negotiation mood and the impact was that it set off the left; Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House, initially saying I've got to have a public option. Everybody down the line - Chris Dodd in the Senate, who is on another Senate committee that was instrumental in crafting some health care legislation here, said, you know what, without the public option, you don't have health care reform.

Howard Dean, others, everybody's saying this. So the left gets energized and angered, and suddenly the president, who needs to make sure that he doesn't lose support among Democrats, finds that he's now threatened even from his own party on having any success with health care legislation, his number one domestic priority.

SIMON: Well, it raises this question: a number of prominent voices, supporters of the administration, columnists, and even some politicians, have said forget the Republicans, we can't talk to them. Let's pass this with our own votes. Is that possible, or what are the effects of that?

WILLIAMS: It's possible, but it's literally what would be called a nuclear option in terms of reconciliation. You're talking not only about losing Republicans but losing some conservative Democrats, forcing it through, let's say, with 50 votes, 51 votes, and it would feel, I think, to most Americans like, you know what, this was just being shoved the American people's throats. And it would lose the notion of widespread support, the moral argument that we need health care reform. And so you see that that's slipping away from the president. It would damage - I think it would be damaging.

SIMON: Final question: Last night the administration released the fact that the federal deficit is projected to be $2 trillion more over the next ten years than what they thought just a few weeks ago. What's the political effect of this?

WILLIAMS: Well, again, so much of the political strategic argument about this is, are we really having a conversation about health care or are we having a conversation about the economy? And if it's a conversation about the economy, news that the deficit's going to be even higher lends support to those who say, well, then how can you put additional funds into reforming health care at this time, it's just going to drive up the deficit, make it less likely that we get out of recession. And that's a big problem.

SIMON: NPR News analyst Juan Williams, thanks so much.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Scott.

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