Fallows On The News: Health Overhaul, Immigration News analyst James Fallows of The Atlantic magazine talks with host Guy Raz about the big stories of the week, including the final push for a health care overhaul and what's likely to be the next big issue for Congress: immigration.

Fallows On The News: Health Overhaul, Immigration

Fallows On The News: Health Overhaul, Immigration

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News analyst James Fallows of The Atlantic magazine talks with host Guy Raz about the big stories of the week, including the final push for a health care overhaul and what's likely to be the next big issue for Congress: immigration.

(Soundbite of music)

GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

President BARACK OBAMA: I don't know how passing health care will play politically, but I know it's right.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Pres. OBAMA: Teddy Roosevelt knew it was right. Harry Truman knew that it was right. Ted Kennedy knew it was right. And if you believe that it's right, then you've got to help us finish this fight.

RAZ: President Barack Obama at a health care rally yesterday at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

Joining me from Washington, as he often does on Saturday, is James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic. Jim, greetings from Southern California where we're broadcasting out of this weekend.

Mr. JAMES FALLOWS (National Correspondent, The Atlantic): Well, enjoy our mutual homeland of California.

RAZ: I will indeed.

Jim, we're going to be following the health care vote very closely this weekend and, of course, into next week. But as a man who has been around Washington off and on since the early 1970s, I'm wondering if you think the importance of this legislation is in any way being exaggerated or is this as momentous as it comes?

Mr. FALLOWS: I think this is as big an issue of domestic policy as we've seen in quite a while. You know, there is a Republican criticism of the bill that it's too momentous that is taking over by the government, one-sixth of the economy. And that's not really a fair criticism partly because so much of the health care system is already run directly by the government with Medicare and Medicaid and so on and partly because the spill steers people towards the private insurers overwhelmingly. And there's a left criticism that it doesn't do enough.

But I think this actually is quite a consequential matter if it does pass mainly because it's a bill that establishes that American citizens should have medical coverage just by virtue of being here, not by being old or being poor or being veterans or working for a big company.

And if the Obama administration is able to pass that, it is something that Bill Clinton was not able to do 16 years ago, and that Richard Nixon was not able to do 40 years ago. And I think it's comparable mainly to the Medicare passage 45 years ago when Lyndon Johnson had gigantic Democratic majorities.

RAZ: Now, Jim, President Obama was criticized last summer by some Democrats for not answering the charges that were made against the health care plan, things like, you know, the death panels, and so on. I mean, clearly, he's been stumping for this issue pretty intensely these past few weeks, even postponed a trip to South Asia and Australia that was scheduled for this week. How much of an impact does all of this politicking and stumping tend to have in the end?

Mr. FALLOWS: We'll see that over the next 36 hours or so as this thing comes to a vote. What's interesting here, I think, there's two things: One is that President Obama has shown through his relatively brief public career that he's able to sway opinion in the large scale by these big set speeches that he does. This is his most important test of sort of inside battling of trying to get those last few votes in the House and to get the Senate, up to 60 as they did a couple of months ago.

And so, if he can pull that off again, that is something. Also, it's striking to me, as the most dramatic illustration we've seen in a while of a president being willing to use up his political capital. George W. Bush didn't have to do that very often because most of the controversial things he wanted to do were relatively popular. This obviously is a very, very hard-fought fight, where the president is using his leverage, using his capital, and we'll see tomorrow how this turns out.

RAZ: I mean, literally using the bully pulpit.

Mr. FALLOWS: Indeed. Using the bully pulpit but also being willing to, you know, willing to let his own popularity and the parties go down to fulfill something he made one of his campaign promises. And the reason I insist on this is we often criticize our politicians of any party for being too cautious about using popularity they have accrued. So, agree or disagree with his policy, this is on where the president is willing to spend his capital down.

RAZ: Jim, let's say health care overhaul passes Congress this coming week, Republicans have said they will campaign on this issue in the upcoming midterms. Now, there's talk among Democrats of trying to tackle immigration next. And I'm wondering if that's a risky political calculus, I mean, given how much of a hot-button issue that is.

Mr. FALLOWS: It certainly has been a very emotional issue not just in the last couple of years but over the many decades in American life. And so it's maybe, and we'll see this soon, whether the system is just overloaded and can't handle this kind of extra stress. The one saving grace that immigration policy has compared with health reform in particular is the politics of it are intense, but they don't go along normal party lines.

And so, it's often been the case where there have been these bipartisan immigration reform efforts, we had Senator Schumer and Graham, Republican and Democrat, this last week suggesting some reform. And that's like the Simpson-Mazzoli Bill in the 1980s, again a Republican-Democrat coalition to have some reforms.

RAZ: That's news analyst and Atlantic correspondent James Fallows. You can read his blog at jamesfallows.theatlantic.com.

Jim, thanks so much and I'll see you when I'm back in Washington.

Mr. FALLOWS: My pleasure, and enjoy California.

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