Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live


Obama to Address Nation on Health Care

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a town hall meeting on healthcare at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee August 20, 2009 in Washington, DC. Obama answered questions from people on his plan for healthcare reform during the town hall.
Alex Wong
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a town hall meeting on healthcare at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee August 20, 2009 in Washington, DC. Obama answered questions from people on his plan for healthcare reform during the town hall.

Obama to Address Nation on Health Care
We'll get a preview from NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley of Pres. Obama's major speech to the nation on health care reform.

KPBS radio and television will carry Pres. Obama's health care speech beginning at 5 p.m. today.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. President Obama has not lost the war, but it's fair to say he's lost a few battles during this volatile political summer. The president's approval rating has dropped in the polls, the numbers on job creation and unemployment are still bad, there are liberal and conservative voices both calling for a withdrawal from Afghanistan, and then, there's healthcare reform. What started as one of the president's signature causes has become a launching pad for attacks from his critics. Now, President Obama has called a joint session of Congress for an address on the issue of healthcare reform. We'll hear how important this speech is, and what he may say to the nation tonight. My guest is NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley. Good morning, Scott.

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

CAVANAUGH: Now I want to invite our listeners to join the conversation. What do you think the President should say about healthcare reform in his speech tonight? You can give us a call at 1-888-895-5727, that's 1-888-895-KPBS. So, Scott, do we have an idea what the president is going to say in this address to the nation?

HORSLEY: Well, I think we have an idea what his goals are. He's going to try to reach out to the American people and remind them why it is that they want to overhaul the healthcare system. And you know there is actually fairly broad public support for fixing some of the real problems in the healthcare system, whether it's covering the uninsured or providing more security for people who have health insurance through their employer but are worried about losing it or worried about rising premiums. So he's going to really try to make a broad public appeal to rally, you know, public support for changes, and then he'll also be speaking to a lesser extent to the lawmakers who are actually sitting there in the room about what the details are in the plan and what he wants to see and what he doesn't want to see.

CAVANAUGH: Now there's been a lot of healthcare reform supporters who basically have said the president should have done something like this, perhaps not an address to the joint session of Congress, but something very much like this outlining his ideas about healthcare reform in a very specific way a long time ago. How does the White House respond to that sort of criticism?


HORSLEY: You know, they've been getting an awful lot of second guessing about their tactics as they approach this debate. And I guess they're used to being second guessed by this point. One thing that was sort of interesting last week, David Axelrod, the president's political advisor, said that August was not as damaging to the president's cause as the cable news media and a lot of the general news media might have you believe. And I have to say I kind of raised my eyebrows when he said that but we did get some polling numbers yesterday from the Gallup organization and it is kind of interesting. It shows that there really was virtually no movement in public attitudes towards the healthcare reform from the beginning of August until the end of August. Now that's not all good news for the president because even at the beginning of August there was a – the people who were opposed to changes in the healthcare system slightly outnumbered the people who were supportive of it. And then you had about 30% of the public who were still on the fence, and that's really about where we are now. So for all the sound and fury and fist-shaking and angry town hall meetings we saw on the cable news channels, the ball really hasn't moved very much during the month of August. That doesn't mean it's where the president wants it to be but it does suggest that maybe they didn't lose quite as much momentum as has been portrayed in the press.

CAVANAUGH: That's an interesting take on it because you're right, the idea I think most of the public would believe that these angry town hall meetings have moved the debate. Have they changed the debate in any way in Washington, the fact that there's been so much anger released at town hall meetings in these congressional – in the congressional districts over healthcare reform?

HORSLEY: I don't think that they've necessarily changed things very much. You know, lawmakers, I think, are skittish about doing anything that's going to offend their constituents but I don't think there were a lot of profiles in courage that we saw before the August recess either in congress. It's also true that when you hear, for example, what the members of the Senate Finance Committee are talking about, the very same proposals that are on the table now were on the table at the beginning of August. So there – it's not as if somebody, during the intervening weeks, has discovered a magic bullet to solve this problem. The same tough choices are confronting the legislature that were when they left for their recess at the beginning of August.

CAVANAUGH: Now one of the major sticking points, of course, is the public option and the White House has been and, I would imagine, will maintain to walk a very fine line on this because the Senate seems to be opposed to any kind of government run public option in a healthcare reform proposal while a number of the more – of members of the more liberal House say they won't vote for anything that doesn't have a public option. So where…

HORSLEY: That's right, and one way to thread that needle, it's been suggested, is this notion that you wouldn't have the public option from the get-go but you'd write into the plan some sort of contingency plan where if the private insurers didn't meet certain conditions over some finite period of time, then a public insurance option would kick in. That's been called the trigger mechanism and that may be a way to find compromise, although nobody seems too happy with the trigger idea. The people that want a public option think the trigger is not enough, and the people who are opposed to a public option think the trigger is too much. So it is a fine line the president's trying to walk. I suspect he'll say tonight pretty much what he's been saying all along, which is that he's supportive of the public option but he's not going to wave the bloody shirt and say that he's going to go to the mat and stake all of the healthcare overhaul on that one issue.

CAVANAUGH: Now yesterday President Obama met with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. What did they talk about?

HORSLEY: Well, I would've liked to have been a fly on the wall.


HORSLEY: I don't know what they talked about. What Senator Reid and Speaker Pelosi said after the meeting was that the president had not tipped his hand. He hadn't given them a sneak preview…


HORSLEY: …of the speech. But I think they talked about what it's going to take to try to move this forward and, you know, I don't know that we've seen Speaker Pelosi or Senator Reid be terribly helpful in that cause so far.

CAVANAUGH: Right, and that's one of the questions, Scott. You know, so many people who are for healthcare reform say Democrats control the White House, the Senate and the House, so why is this reform proving to be such a difficult thing to move forward?

HORSLEY: Well, two things. One is that even in the Senate where there's a Democratic majority, there's not a filibuster proof majority, especially after the death of Senator Kennedy. But perhaps more importantly, you know, one thing that goes along with becoming a majority party, and it's a mixed blessing, is that you have a lot more people from different parts of the political spectrum who now call themselves Democrats. While the Republican party has become smaller and more unified, the Democratic party has become bigger and less unified. And that's just a natural evolution that goes when you try to reach out to a broader spectrum – a broader section of the political spectrum, you wind up with a lot more moderate or even conservative Democrats, people who call themselves Democrats but who are, you know, well to the right of, for example, Speaker Pelosi. So, you know, the Democratic party, which was never terrible unified to begin with is less unified now that it's in the majority than it was.

CAVANAUGH: And I'm wondering why – I said in the introduction to this piece that many people are saying that this could be too little, too late, the president's speech tonight to the nation about healthcare reform. There was a speech to the nation about healthcare reform that President Clinton gave in, I believe, 1993, and it was very well received. It was also before a joint session of congress. But it really didn't do much to secure any substantive healthcare reform. What is the – what are you hearing? Do you – Is there a feeling that this speech really might turn things around?

HORSLEY: You know, I think, although that parallel has certainly been drawn and naturally so, really I think the debate is in a different place than it was when President Clinton made his speech to the joint session back in the early nineties. Despite all the teeth gnashing, there really is pretty broad agreement on a lot of the pieces of what the president wants to do with overhauling the nation's healthcare system. There's pretty broad agreement that you need to get everybody, or very close to everybody, into the mix. There's pretty broad agreement that you need to put some limits on the way the insurance companies, the private insurance companies, behave. And I suspect at the end of the day, they will get something out of this process, not necessarily because this speech is going to be so pivotal but I think perhaps because the hole is not quite as deep as has been portrayed.

CAVANAUGH: Now this is the – at least the second or third speech this week, major address, that the president is giving. I want to talk about the one he gave yesterday to the Wakefield High School in Virginia, that was broadcast to many schools across the nation, and it caused controversy. Even here in San Diego, there were districts that did not broadcast the speech. Why did that speech become a lightning rod even before it was delivered?

HORSLEY: It's hard to say why the speech became a lightning rod except that there are a certain number of people in the country who really don't accept that Barack Obama is the legitimate President to the United States. And they don't believe that he ought to be in the White House and so they'll challenge him at every turn, even something as innocuous as urging students to work hard and stay in school. And then, of course, there are Republican opponents who will capitalize on that frustration for their own political ends and then it takes someone like Laura Bush to step forward—and I should say, there are plenty of, I think, sensible Republicans who stepped forward and said, look, this is nuts. I mean, things have really gone off the rails if the president can't encourage students to study hard and stay in school. The White House itself tried I think, at the beginning of this, to sort of ignore the controversy and hope it would go away or hope that it would be revealed for the sort of fringy nuttiness that it is, but over the weekend and on Monday they kind of changed their tack and I think they've now decided they're going to confront the nuts on the right and try to showcase just how nutty they are and perhaps use that for their own political ends and suggest now that people that challenge them on genuinely controversial things like the healthcare overhaul are also nutty and fringy.

CAVANAUGH: I see. Yeah, that does dovetail into the other question I was going to ask you and it's back to this – these town hall meetings and what's gone on during the month of August. And some of the healthcare reform debates seems to have had very little to do about healthcare and a lot about distrusting this president. So from what you've been reading and hearing, Scott, are we seeing a backlash from conservatives across the board against President Obama?

HORSLEY: Well, it is a question that there is a genuine backlash. Whether it is, you know, what proportion of the public it represents, I think, is hard to put your finger on but I don't think there's any question that a lot of the anger that we saw in the town hall meetings in August wasn't really about healthcare except to the extent that healthcare was just one more sign of what these critics feel as a government intrusion to what had been, you know, the private sectors of the economy. And, let's face it, we've seen a very big step of the government into the banking sector, we've seen previously inconceivable steps by the government into the automobile industry. We've seen nearly a trillion dollars spent to try to stimulate the economy out of the recession. You know, all these, you can argue the merits of them but there's no question that that's put a lot of people on edge and so, for some, they just see the healthcare moves as one more piece of that broader agenda which some of them disagree with.

CAVANAUGH: So with the GOP, as you say, Scott, smaller and more unified and with this backlash coming out against the president on a wide range of objectives, what does the White House see ahead politically for the rest of the president's term?

HORSLEY: I think a lot depends on what happens with healthcare. If they can be successful in healthcare, I think they feel like that will give them momentum to tackle some of the other challenges and I think they do feel like if they aren't able to deliver healthcare, that will be a setback for not only the rest of their agenda but for Democrats in Congress in 2010.

CAVANAUGH: Scott Horsley, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

HORSLEY: It's my pleasure. Any time, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And we've been speaking with NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley. I want to remind everyone KPBS radio and television will carry President Obama's healthcare speech beginning at 5 p.m. this afternoon. And coming up, the science behind mood altering substances. That's next as These Days continues here on KPBS.