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White House Update: Health Care Reform, Economic Policy

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Aired 7/14/09

What are the chances that national health care reform will happen this year? What were the highlights from President Barack Obama's recent trip overseas? Why is national confidence in the president's economic plan starting to decrease? We speak to NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley about the top stories in the nation's capitol.

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.
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Above: Local San Diego editors debate the health care reform speech that President Obama delivered to the nation on Wednesday.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. Covering the White House as a reporter for a national network means occasionally you get to get out of the White House. That's exactly what happened for NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley earlier this month. He got to accompany President Obama on his first trip to Russia, his trip to the G-8 summit in Italy and the president's historic visit to Africa.

Now that both the president and Scott are back at the White House, we're taking just a few minutes to get caught up on the big stories out of Washington, from the Sotomayor hearings underway on Capitol Hill, to the frustrations of health care reform, and what it's like to travel the world as part of President Obama's press corps. My guest is NPR White House correspondent, former KPBS reporter, Scott Horsley. Good morning, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY (NPR White House Correspondent): Great to be with you, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Good to hear from you. Now there's lots of news out of Washington this week but, you know, I guess the biggest story really is the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. I wonder, what is the general feeling of how this hearing is going for the president's first Supreme Court nominee?

HORSLEY: Well, I think, as Lindsay Graham of South Carolina said yesterday, as long as she doesn't have a meltdown, she's likely to be confirmed. And thus far, she's handled herself pretty well. Of course, yesterday she barely got to talk. The most of the day was given over to Senators giving their own speeches. And I've just been watching the first round of questioning this morning and she's held her own, certainly. A lot of questioning still to come but barring any surprises, she's likely to be confirmed.

CAVANAUGH: Now is there anything the White House seems particularly worried about with this nominee?

HORSLEY: No. You know, I think her judicial track record is actually, you know, quite mainstream and there's not a whole lot of radicalism that her Republican critics can point to. Mostly what they've been pointing to in their criticism is things that she has said off the bench and in some of her speeches. And, you know, she'll take her lumps over comments about a wise Latina making better judgments than a white male, and she's sat through the lectures on that already and I'm sure she's – she'll sit through it for a couple more days. But, you know, the analysis of her 17 years on the bench has thus far not turned up any real glaring red flags either for the White House or for her Republican critics.

CAVANAUGH: And I wonder, since this is – I think it's acknowledged on both sides that her confirmation is tantamount to a sure thing, are White House staffers looking at this hearing, trying to get any idea what, perhaps, a next Supreme Court nomination confirmation hearing might be like, trying to pick up pointers?

HORSLEY: I think what they'll be watching for less than the hearing is what the ultimate vote is. Certainly the liberal interest groups are anxious to see a real lopsided vote in Judge Sotomayor's favor, feeling like that would give the White House license to maybe move a little bit further left along the spectrum in their next pick, if they get one. On the other hand, if it's a real razor-thin majority, that might force the White House to trim its sails a little bit.

CAVANAUGH: I want to tell everyone listening, we are going to be speaking more about the Sonia Sotomayor confirmation hearing coming up at ten o'clock here on These Days. But, Scott, I want to move on with you, if I can, to the president's trip last week. Now people who listen to NPR probably heard your voice a few times as you followed the president, made your reports on his trips to Russia, Europe and parts of Africa. Remind us what the trip was about.

HORSLEY: Well, it was really three trips in one. The first was a trip to Moscow to meet with the Russian leadership and primarily to talk about arms control, although Mr. Obama also spent a day talking with sort of the average Russian people, business people, opposition groups, college students. This was his attempt, as he said, to help reset U.S.-Russian relations which had fallen to an uneasy place during the last administration, and to try to make some progress on a arms controls treaty to replace the START Treaty, which expires in December. And there was certainly some progress there. He and the Russian president agreed on a framework and they hope to have something negotiated in time to replace the START Treaty when it expires. Then he went to Italy for the G8 meetings, which were really the G8 plus meetings because it was not only the eight big industrial countries but they brought in developing powers and African countries and other players as well so there were, I think I counted 30 different national flags around the meeting site there in L'Aquila, which you'll remember is where there was the deadly earthquake in Italy back in April. So while the president and some of the other leaders stayed there in L'Aquila, the press corps bussed to Rome every night so we slept in Rome but worked in L'Aquila so we spent about four hours on the road every day, which…

CAVANAUGH: Wow.

HORSLEY: …made for some long days although it's a very pretty bus ride through the Italian countryside, I have to say. And then finally, of course, his stop in Ghana, which was quick, less than 24 hours, but generated huge enthusiasm, obviously. This was the first African-American president making his first stop as president in Sub-Saharan Africa and he was warmly embraced by the Ghanaian people. There were no public events, no wide-open to the public events while he was there, perhaps the security forces were mindful of the crowd of a half million that had turned out to see Bill Clinton and thought, boy, if Bill Clinton draws half a million, what would Barack Obama draw?

CAVANAUGH: Right.

HORSLEY: And how would we possibly maintain security? So they didn't do any big public events but even the smaller events were very, very enthusiastic and, of course, lots of Ghanaians were able to follow the events on TV and radio.

CAVANAUGH: And besides that four-hour bus trip that you had to take in Italy, I wonder what it's like flying around with the president? I read an article recently that the White House staffers are bleary-eyed, they're working 24/7, they get off these, you know, these plane – these trips that he takes are just relentlessly busy. Did you find yourself similarly bleary-eyed, Scott?

HORSLEY: You know, I was glad to hear that they're affected, too. I think I read that same piece. It's a very full schedule and I must say President Obama has remarkable energy that he's able to keep this up. I think he showed some signs of the jet lag maybe on his second day in Moscow, his – he delivered a pretty important speech at the New Economic School in Moscow and it was not his most energetic performance. I mean, it was a…

CAVANAUGH: Ahh…

HORSLEY: …perfectly fine speech but he was maybe a little bit tired. But he seemed to pick up energy as the week went on and was more energetic by the time we ended the trip in Ghana maybe than when he started. Of course, then he has to come home and turns right around and dives back into the healthcare debate and later today he's off to Michigan and St. Louis, for an economic speech in Michigan and to throw out the first pitch at the All Star Game. So, it never stops. I think one of the comments that was striking in that article was it's not the 24 – of the 24/7 schedule, it's not the 24 that gets to you, it's the 7.

CAVANAUGH: Exactly.

HORSLEY: It never lets up.

CAVANAUGH: There's no day off. One of the flaps, you know, that – it started here while the president was off on his trip, was that there was some – there was an outpouring of dissatisfaction over the results of the stimulus package and in recent polling it looks like there aren't as many people who support the president's stimulus package as maybe a few months ago. Does the time it's taking for the economy to show signs of recovery, does that come as a surprise to the White House?

HORSLEY: I don't think it comes as a surprise. I think the level of unemployment, which is – already tops 10% now, and I think it's 14% in Michigan – I'm sorry, it hasn't topped 10% nationally but top ten percents (sic) in many parts of the country and almost sure to top 10% nationally. I think that is a higher unemployment rate than was anticipated back in January and February when the stimulus package was being negotiated. But I don't think that the fact that it was going to take a long time to see a turnaround comes as a surprise to the White House. They would, I'm sure, love to see a faster turnaround but the slow pace is, I think, pretty much what most economists had forecast if maybe the depths of the downturn were – are deeper than they had forecast. The political fallout from that, the sort of growing disenchantment with the stimulus package, I suppose anybody who sort of follows America's politics has to say, well, that's going to follow a lengthy downturn just as sure as night follows day. You know, if you have a – if you have unemployment that is staying high and, in fact, climbing month after month, people are going to start to get impatient and the president has tried to counsel patience saying, look, it's a two-year stimulus package, it's not a six-month stimulus package, and please be patient. And, you know, people will put up with that for awhile but there's – there are limits to it. Already, we're seeing some people saying, well, gosh, we ought to have a second stimulus package…

CAVANAUGH: Right, that's…

HORSLEY: …which is kind of remarkable when you think that we’ve spent really just a small fraction of the money that's allocated in the first stimulus package and maybe there is an argument to be made for letting it do its work. And then, of course, the other criticism of the stimulus package is that the way that the money is being spent is not optimal to create jobs and that dye was sort of cast when the legislature went in and decided how the money would be spent. Remember, some of the money was shelled out in the form of tax breaks and that is flowing pretty quickly into the economy but consumers aren't, by and large, spending it. They're tending to save that money, which is good in the long term but not so good in the short term. And then, you know, there was all sorts of government spending, which was the other part of the stimulus package, and some of that will create jobs and some of it probably won't create very many jobs and, you know, that mix is probably subject to more justifiable criticism than the – than the pace.

CAVANAUGH: Well, last Friday, it was announced that General Motors had amazingly very quickly emerged from bankruptcy. I know, Scott, you've been following this story, and I – how has the company changed? How has it changed now since it has emerged from this bankruptcy from what it was when it was bankrupt?

HORSLEY: Well, you know, it's a smaller company. It's been freed of a lot of its more onerous debts. Time will tell, though, whether they can make a go of it, whether they can really build cars that the American people will want to buy and whether they can build enough of them and sell enough of them to make a profit. But, you know, they have certainly been given a good chance. They have been given a second chance here without a lot of the legacy debts that they had, and they've, of course, been forced into making very painful cuts in both the size of the workforce, the size of the dealership network, which they probably would not have done absent the government's involvement. I mean, obviously, they had years to do that and were not able to do it so while I don't think anybody was eager to see the government playing this major role in the private sector, it has forced General Motors and also Chrysler to make changes that the companies had been more or less unable to make on their own.

CAVANAUGH: Let's move on to what you said that the president had to dive right back into when he got home, and that is healthcare reform. What is the latest news on the president's push to overhaul the nation's healthcare system?

HORSLEY: Well, he met yesterday with Democratic leaders of both the House and Senate and basically tried to hold their feet to the fire a little bit and say, look, let's get this done. Later this week, I think we are going to see the Senate Health Committee come out with their version of a healthcare bill. The Senate Finance Committee is still working on financing. There are some in Washington on Capitol Hill who would like the president to really wade in in a more concrete way and, you know, with all these thorny issues to be worked out, especially how are you going to pay for this? Who are you going to tax in order to generate the money needed to extend healthcare coverage? What kind of healthcare coverage is going to be extended? Is there going to be a publicly run plan? Some of these big debates that lawmakers have sort of been dithering over for a number of weeks now. There are those who would like the president to come in, use his influence and say, look, here's how it's going to be. Thus far, he – President Obama's been very reluctant to take that kind of stand. He's been, on the one hand, hands-on in saying let's get it done, let's move quickly, and hands-off in saying it's up to you guys to decide how we wrestle with some of these thorny issues. And that – we'll see if that combination works for him. He – That was the similar approach that he took in working out the stimulus package and, you know, arguably it led to some shortcomings in the shape of the stimulus package but he doesn't want to come in and say here is the, you know, the White House mandate of how this must be done. He wants to give the legislature a lot of rope to work with. And we're going to see if they can run with that rope or get just all tangled up in knots with it.

CAVANAUGH: But, you know, the thing is, the president says that he wants – he's told congress he wants healthcare reform legislation on his desk before they leave for their August recess. Now most articles about what lawmakers are saying say that that's not going to happen. So how – What chance does that have to happen if the president doesn't step in and show some guidance on this issue?

HORSLEY: You know, I don't think he expects to necessarily have legislation on his desk. What he'd like to see is the House pass something and the Senate pass something before the August recess then they could come back and do the reconciliation after the recess. But what he doesn't want is to have one version, in particular the House version, out there all during the August recess for the critics to take potshots at and, thereby, make it very difficult for the Senate to pass anything when they come back. You know, it is what, today, the 14th of July, so we have a few more weeks. I don't know that there's any objective reason that lawmakers can't get a handle on this. It is complicated, it's a big issue, it's one-sixth of the economy, but it's not as if we don't know what the issues are.

CAVANAUGH: Yes.

HORSLEY: And they're not going to get any clearer in September. I mean, the tough choices that have to be made are going to have to be made and I don't know any particular reason that they're going to be easier to make after the August recess than – or we're going to know something then that we don't know now. It's really kind of a bite-the-bullet sort of process. He was asked – President Obama was asked about this while we were in Europe. He had a news conference in Italy at the G-8 conference and even there the healthcare debate was much on reporters' minds and someone asked him about that timeline. You know, is it do or die to get it done before the recess? And he said, it's never do or die with him but he'd really like to see it before the August recess. So he's, on the one hand, sort of trying to really put pressure on lawmakers and keep – you know, not give them an out to procrastinate and, at the same time, leave the door open so if it does happen that it doesn't get done by August, it won't look like a complete failure.

CAVANAUGH: Scott, we're going to have to leave it there but I really appreciate your talking with us this morning.

HORSLEY: Any time, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: That is NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley. And you can continue this discussion online. We want to encourage you to post your comments at KPBS.org/TheseDays. These Days will continue in just a few moments.

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