STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The president is dealing with industries in crisis at the same time that he tries to keep his agenda moving. And one huge part of that agenda is extending health insurance to millions of Americans. He is the second straight Democratic president to try that. And we're going to get some insight this morning from a pollster who tried to help Bill Clinton pass national health insurance in the 1990s.
Mr. STAN GREENBERG (Democratic pollster): I never want to call myself a pollster. When someone would say that, I'd look over my shoulder to see who they were talking about. I'm a political activist. I have a political product. I'm a partisan. I want to see Democrats succeed. And most people who come to polling come to it out of politics.
INSKEEP: Stan Greenberg wrote a book, called "Dispatches from the War Room," about his work with leaders including Clinton. In the early days of that presidency, he had a weekly, 15-minute meeting with the president, who seemed about to change the world. What was your role in that health-care debacle?
GREENBERG: Oh, not good.
INSKEEP: If you want to call it that.
GREENBERG: Yeah, well, I mean good - I mean I played a, you know, significant role in advising it and helping the first lady and the president on, you know, advancing the issue. But I - it did take three days for the plan to be explained to me, and I guess I should have figured that any plan that takes three days to explain to me - and I do have a Ph.D. - probably is a little bit too complex to take out to the Congress and the country.
INSKEEP: Hmm. What happened when you took some of those details out to the Congress and began doing focus groups and conducting polls, as you do?
GREENBERG: Well, the devil's in the details, and it was vulnerable to, you know, looking like a big government intrusion into the economy and big bureaucracy, and so it was very vulnerable to the political process that we went into. And it clearly should not have happened in the second year. It was something that should have happened right up front as part of the, you know, the election mandate.
INSKEEP: President Clinton tried to work out all the details in advance - or his first lady, Hillary Clinton, did - and that delayed the whole process. And by the time that they got around to proposing it, he'd lost a lot of his mandate.
GREENBERG: That's probably the biggest learning - I suspect, from President Clinton, was moving health care into the Congress and into society.
INSKEEP: When you think about the kinds of polling that you did in 1993, and that you've continued doing ever since, about what the public wants when it comes to health care, what the public will tolerate when it comes to health care - what are some basics, and what are some warning signs?
GREENBERG: You know, the public is more skeptical about health care than any other issue I look at. Energy, they're clear. They're clear what they want. They're also willing to take risks to get it done, and they also don't trust the private sector actors: the oil companies and utilities and others. So they defer, in this case, government, you know, investing here and moving is really important to happen. On health care, they aren't sure. They're not sure government won't muck it up. They're not sure the special interests won't come in there as well. They want change. But what I do know, is when you get to the details of it on health care, which is my big learning from the Clinton White House, is be careful.
INSKEEP: When you say details matter, what are the things that those details must avoid in order to be successful, in order to avoid getting trapped?
GREENBERG: Well, it has to preserve, you know, existing options. People can maintain their present doctors and insurance policies, and you build from there. They'll go a long way if they have their existing choices and existing doctors and insurance.
INSKEEP: If the people who have health insurance know they're not going to be penalized in some way.
GREENBERG: They're not going to be penalized; they're not going to pay a high tax for this; that it is, you know, something that builds on where they are now.
INSKEEP: If you had 15 minutes with this president, as you had with the last Democratic president for a time, what would you say?
GREENBERG: You know, I remember what happened with Bill Clinton when he was in the middle of his economic plan, which was LAX Airport, him getting a haircut, supposedly having stopped traffic at the airport while he had a Beverly Hills hairdresser cut his hair. Now that dramatically increased the perception that he was elitist - culturally elitist - and when you're trying to sell an economic plan with taxes, there's nothing worse. And we're in the middle of a crisis in which it is critical for the president to be a president of ordinary people, you know, not with the elites. What happened with the bonuses for, you know, for AIG…
INSKEEP: I was just thinking the same thing.
GREENBERG: …put you right at the edge of saying, is he with us or is he with the elites? I think he handled it well, you know, in the end, but he was right at that line. And I think one of the most important things to understand here is people want you to be with them. They want a president who's going to remember ordinary people, not lose track of them, and that issue almost, you know, crossed the line.
INSKEEP: All right, wellm I'll stop right there. Thanks very much.
GREENBERG: Okay. Good.
INSKEEP: Stan Greenberg is author of "Dispatches From the War Room."
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