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Bloomberg View Columnist Jonathan Alter On The Obamacare Rollout

Friday, November 1, 2013

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HH: Pleased to welcome to the program now Jonathan Alter, the author of many extraordinary books, including most recently, The Center Holds: Obama And His Enemies, The Promise: President Obama, Year One, and of course, The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days And The Triumph Of Hope. He’s a Bloomberg columnist. He’s my pal from the left. Hello, Jonathan, how are you?

JA: How are you doing, Hugh?

HH: I’m great. I’m not sure you are.

JA: I’m doing just fine.

HH: All right, my first question, what was the point of President Obama going to Boston yesterday? Did that help in any way, shape or form the Obamacare fiasco?

JA: I think it helped a little bit in giving the Democrats some talking points, although he doesn’t speak in talking points, but giving them some arguments to use in explaining their position. The thing to remember is that we’re so used to these things being in a political election year kind of context, yes, this could have some impact on the 2014 election, but it’s too early to tell what that impact would be. And you know, if you’re going to have a rollout fiasco, it’s good to have it this year, which is why they didn’t roll it out before the 2012 election, because they had some concern that this kind of thing would possibly happen. And it has happened. It happened on Social Security, which I wrote about in my Roosevelt book and they didn’t get the first checks out for five years after Social Security was passed. And it happened when President Bush got the prescription drug benefit through in 2006. At the beginning for the first few months, there were only a few hundred and then a few thousand who were able to sign up. So I don’t say that as a way of excusing this disaster, really, is what it was. I also don’t think that conservatives should feel like this is going to deal any kind of a death blow to Obamacare.

HH: But I’m genuinely curious. You’ve got a fiasco on every side, and your secretary is getting pummeled on the Hill, and she was terrible, and I think you’ll agree with me on that, why go to Boston? Why do that?

JA: Well, I think that they made a decision in the White House that they were going to “take responsibility” for this, which is a good thing. That’s what we want our public officials to do. And so Sebelius didn’t pass the buck. She took responsibility, and just took all the incoming. And Obama, you know, decided that he’s ultimately responsible, the buck stops with him ultimately, even though he wasn’t exactly writing code at the Department of HHS.

HH: But Jonathan, he could have done that in the Rose Garden in about three minutes. Why go up to Boston and have that elaborate deal?

JA: Well, I think the reason he went to Boston is because of your friend, Mitt Romney. I mean, he was trying to say they had problems with Romneycare in Massachusetts at the very beginning, too, which there’s been a lot about in the newspapers.

HH: But how does that help anything?

JA: Because what it did, he was trying to put it in some context to say don’t think that this thing as a whole is a disaster just because the rollout was a disaster. And he was reminding people that Romneycare is working extremely well in Massachusetts. The national Obamacare is based on Romneycare, and so people, I think it was smart for him to go to Boston to find people that…

HH: Well, politically, maybe, but as a problem solving device, did it actually change or help anyone? For example, 900,000 people, according to a report today in California, are going to get termination letters. I hope I’m not one of them. I don’t think I am. I’ve got a group plan. But 900,000, does the President politicizing this and going to Boston in any way help any of the millions of Americans…

JA: Yes, because it tells them that those 900,000 Californians are going to get better coverage under Obamacare. So yes, the old, crappy plans have just been terminated. But I mean, there was this woman who’s been all over Fox, and she was on CNBC, a California real estate broker, saying oh, I’m getting terminated, and oh, this is terrible, this is terrible. Well, the reporter, Michael Hiltzik from the Los Angeles Times did a story in this morning’s paper, terrific story, taking a look at her particular case. Under her plan that just got terminated, she only got two office visits a year. It doesn’t matter whether she got sick or not. Two offices visits a year, and the rest of it came out of her own pocket. Her deductible was two or three thousand dollars higher than it will be under her new coverage. She’s going to be so much better off under Obamacare than under this…

HH: Jonathan, do you know Michael?

JA: …Anthem, this Anthem care…

HH: Wait, but do you know Michael Hiltzik?

JA: I’ve read his work.

HH: He is a hard left propagandist.

JA: Okay, but you know what, Hugh? You know what, Hugh? That’s just making it personal without looking at the story.

HH: Oh, I will. I will go look at it. I just know to correct for the balance. He’s not you. He’s not going to be fair and balanced with the facts.

JA: Okay…

HH: I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could throw him on anything.

JA: Well that’s, I don’t think that’s fair to him.

HH: Oh, believe me, I know Michael Hiltzik very, very well. Have you investigated him? Do you know his record?

JA: No.

HH: Take a look.

JA: I’ve read his stories.

HH: Google him sometime.

JA: But the piece, for those who don’t have time to read it, it’s not a polemical, kind of partisan screed. He takes this one woman’s case, gets all the information about her, looks at the Anthem plan that just got terminated, and then compares that to what she will get under Obamacare, and she will be better off. And when he explained it to her, even though she’s been going on as a poster woman for the critics of Obamacare, she said oh, okay, well, I guess maybe I will be better off.

HH: Oh, I’ll read it with great interest. But let me play for you a fellow lefty, Andrew Sullivan, being asked by Anderson Cooper why Obamacare is such a fiasco. Here’s what Andrew Sullivan said.

AS: Here’s one explanation. When Obama was asked once what his basic, deepest flaw was, he said deep laziness. And I wonder whether this is not the equivalent of that first debate last year. The guy just didn’t focus, played too much golf.

HH: Jonathan Alter, you’re the President’s biographer, and I assume you know Andrew. What do you think of that?

JA: Well, you know, that laziness quote, which Roger Ailes also took out of context, in The Center Holds, you know, I explain what he meant when he was talking about that. He is not a lazy man. It’s just not true. And he was being hypercritical, and he was explaining how, where his sense of discipline and drive comes from, because he fears that that inner laziness, and that’s what, you know, made him…

HH: So what do you think of Andrew Sullivan saying that, though, because I read your book. I know the explanation, but…

JA: You know, I don’t know what Andrew’s motive was there, but the point is that where I think there’s a grain of truth to this is not anything to do with laziness, but what it has to do with is that this president had no experience in the federal bureaucracy. And if you look at somebody like Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson, George H. W. Bush, they had deep experience in government, so they knew instinctively how bureaucrats can foul things up, how just because you expect something to get done doesn’t mean it’s going to get done. Obama not only didn’t have that experience, but he did not surround himself with entrepreneurs and managers. And I’ve been very tough on him about this. So in this particular case, who did he put in charge to try to fix the mess? A very capable guy named Jeffrey Zeints, who, but Zeints has now had to take a leave from his job as the head of the National Economic Council to do this, because there, he’s the only one. There should be ten people like that in the White House who have management experience and could help fix up this mess, fix this mess.

HH: Let me pause for a second. The President sold this thing again and again. You’ve heard the tape of, well, I’ll play it for you.

BO: Here’s a guarantee that I’ve made. If you have insurance that you like, then you will be able to keep that insurance.

HH: And here is what Clarence Page, he stunned me on my program earlier this week, by doubting the President’s veracity when he made that statement. Here’s the exchange with Clarence.

HH: He knew he was lying?

CP: Probably. Probably. But that’s one of those political lies.

HH: Do you agree with Clarence?

JA: Wow. I don’t know exactly how to react to that, because first of all, I don’t know when the statement was that he made it, that he made when he said you know, you absolutely will be able to…was that in 2008? Was that in early 2009?

HH: He said it many, many times throughout 2009 when he was selling the bill.

JA: Yeah, so I think where Clarence is right is that politicians in order to get stuff through, they often make a lot of nice sounding promises that they then can’t necessarily keep. But it’s very, in terms of whether he lied or not, I think it’s very important to know whether he said it before or after the law was passed.

HH: If he said it after, if he said it before the law was passed.

JA: It was a moving target. If he said it before the law was passed, then I wouldn’t call it a lie, because, you know, the law went through a number of permutations. If he said it after the law was passed, then he knew that wasn’t going to be true.

HH: Jonathan Alter, I always appreciate your candor. I really do, because I think he’s got an amazing, we’ve got a minute left here, he’s got a meltdown on his hands. This is a catastrophic moment.

JA: I don’t think so. You and I disagree on this. I think it is pathetic. I’m not rationalizing it in any way, but you know from when I talked to you about Franklin Roosevelt they had a lot of these problems with Social Security, and eventually, it’ll get straightened out. The bill is too complicated, there are things wrong with the bill, but Republicans and critical Democrats need to serve their constituents by trying to fix the bill, not wreck the law. In other words, the thing that’s better for the average person is to make the technical fixes so that it works. It will not be killed, Hugh. You don’t the votes for it. He’s got the veto pen, he’s got the votes in the Senate. Obamacare will not be killed.

HH: Oh, I agree. It’s a zombie program. It is the walking dead, Jonathan Alter.

JA: It cannot be…

HH: It cannot be killed.

JA: Right. So people should try to fix it and make it work.

HH: It will eat everything available, and then it will die on its own.

JA: But if Republicans would change their motive from trying to kill it, which is a futile effort, to trying to fix it, which is a necessity, it must be fixed.

HH: I will not save the zombies, Jonathan. I will not go…We’re out of time. Thank you, my friend. Jonathan Alter, Bloomberg columnist, you’ve got to come back soon. Go read his FDR book. Everyone on the Obama team should. It will encourage them.

End of interview.

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