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Rahm Emanuel on Health Care and the Obama Agenda

March 25, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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With Congress poised to finish its changes to the new health care law, Jim Lehrer talks to White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel about the public reaction and what's next on the president's agenda.

JIM LEHRER: And now our interview with Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff.

I spoke with him a short time ago.

Rahm Emanuel, welcome.

RAHM EMANUEL, White House chief of staff: Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: How do you read the seriousness of these threats against members of Congress?

RAHM EMANUEL: Well, I think, first of all, I think we should all know that we can have disagreements without being disagreeable.

This was a long debate, a lot of heat, sometimes not a lot of light, but a lot of heat around it. I think it’s important for every elected officials, regardless of party or where you are in the issue, to speak to the country about calming and setting things down.

We all have a collective interest. A vibrant democracy is a good thing. But this is a debate with a level of civility that should be around it. And that debate now about health care is over. We will have a continuing debate about health care, et cetera, role of government, et cetera, but not one that I think obviously endangers and brings forth any sense of violence or threat.

And, so, every elected official, regardless of where they are on the political spectrum or where they are — were on the issue of health care, has a responsibility to help calm the waters.

JIM LEHRER: Do you personally blame the Republicans for this?

RAHM EMANUEL: I don’t — I don’t blame — first of all, I don’t blame the Republicans.


RAHM EMANUEL: I think, obviously…

JIM LEHRER: I mean fanning the flames of threats and all that stuff?

RAHM EMANUEL: That’s not — that’s not — what I think everybody and what I think the president wants to see is, basically, we all have a responsibility to help our constituents and our fellow citizens understand that it’s good that there’s passion around a debate, but not one that obviously crosses a line into threats and violence.

And I think elected leaders have a role in calming it down. The only person — the only time I would ever say, you know — I don’t say blame or point finger, but I would say a responsibility not to incite it or encourage it, as some have recently.

JIM LEHRER: There’s no question, though, is there, that there is legitimate and serious division about this whole issue, health care, and the legislation, right?

RAHM EMANUEL: There’s no doubt about it.

JIM LEHRER: It really divided the country.

RAHM EMANUEL: Well, part of that is because — I mean, let’s go back, though, Jim. Part of that is because people talked about death panels. People talked about it as being Armageddon.

There was rhetoric used that wasn’t — as I said just a second ago, that was more heat than light.


RAHM EMANUEL: Now, you can — but, you know, I lived through the health care debate in ’93. And there’s a lot — what I think the president’s a little taken aback and — or also surprised.

Walk through just the issue of the individual mandate. In ’93, President Clinton was for an employer mandate. Republicans, the big difference, Senator Chafee’s bill, the Republican bill that had 33 Republican senators on that was the dividing line, was about an employee mandate, i.e. an individual mandate.

That, today, is the basis of why the Republicans oppose this bill. But it was the foundation of the disagreement, where Republicans in ’93 were for it. So, there’s a lot of angst that went into this. You should — I think, if you go through history, whether it was in President Roosevelt’s time or President Kennedy’s time, there has been, during difficult economic and other stressful times, a reaction when there is big change and about — and discussion of big change for the country.

That doesn’t mean we don’t all have the responsibility of calming things down and making sure our fellow citizens can be involved, interested, have emotions, without it crossing a line into threats.

JIM LEHRER: The dust, obviously, has not quite settled yet. But looking at, in retrospect, was it a mistake to push and push and push and pass something this sweeping, this changing, with no votes from the Republicans?

RAHM EMANUEL: No. No. I mean, the president — I mean, he set out a goal. And today, it’s — you ask that. He set out a goal and he went back to Iowa City, where he announced almost three years ago what he wanted to see in health care reform.

And it was a health care plan that provided people cost control, expanded coverage, and real choice and competition. And you have a health care bill that does all that. I will tell you, as somebody who went through this somewhat in another time, in ’93, this bill is very similar to the bipartisan bill that Senator Dole and Senator Daschle and Senator Mitchell and Senator Baker, all former, Democrats and Republicans, supported.

It’s very similar to the bill Republicans advocated in ’93. And, if you look at Mr. Frum’s piece, former Bush speechwriter, he noted, which is some of the things I have said before even to this show and others, that this is very similar to policies advocated back in the ’90s by Republicans, not individual policies, the basic approach, which is a free-market, market-based-system approach.

JIM LEHRER: Is it true that, as some published reports have said, that you advocated actually going a little bit slower, a little smaller for health care, and not go for the whole nine yards, as you and the president — as the president ended up doing and the Democrats?

RAHM EMANUEL: The strength is — yes, first of all. As I…

JIM LEHRER: You did advocate…

RAHM EMANUEL: No, I said that, you know, a job of the chief of staff is to provide the president with a sense of options and to weigh those equities.

And it’s — his strength is that he wanted that, looked at that, and it was one of the things that he said, then, this is why I think it’s so important to spend the political capital to get that done. He didn’t want a bunch of yes-people. He asked for a constant debate about stuff. And he said that the importance of getting health care reform, of finally putting a basis in place that can finally control costs, change the incentives in the system, provide people who don’t have health care, because they’re caught between the public and the private system, the coverage they need, it’s worth doing.

And that is the real leadership of this president. What I provided him was, here’s a way to do it without the political kind of cost. He was willing to spend that political capital to get something done. That’s what leadership is made of.

JIM LEHRER: You just made sure that he understood there was going to be a political cost?

RAHM EMANUEL: But — or that you had to spend…

JIM LEHRER: And he’s paying it right now.

RAHM EMANUEL: No, that..


RAHM EMANUEL: … he had to spend political capital, but, I mean, Jim, what I think is important is, the president wants — this president in particular wants not a bunch of yes-people…


RAHM EMANUEL: … but looking at all the options, and then making the decision that he thinks is right. And he was willing to spend capital.

And I think, if you asked him, he would spend more political capital to get done what he wants, what he thinks is right for the country. That’s the qualities of leadership the country asked for and they got.

JIM LEHRER: Now, the famous “Now what?” question.

JIM LEHRER: What’s the president going to do next? Health care reform is done, at least as it sits here now.


JIM LEHRER: Financial reform, is that going to be a priority? Is it immigration going to — cap and trade, energy? What — what’s next? What’s the next big one?

RAHM EMANUEL: Well, first of all, all of those are about — but they all fit together. OK? They’re all about moving the economy forward and getting the economy on a stronger footing.

If you go back to his Georgetown speech almost a year ago that he gave in March in Georgetown, he talked about the new foundation, putting our health care system in order, so we don’t overspend when we shouldn’t — we’re sending a trillion dollars more than our competitors and getting worse outcomes — putting finally the financial banking regulatory reform structure in place, so we do not repeat the crisis that we had before, and, obviously, an educational system and an energy system that we are making ourselves competitive for the future.

This bill not only passes health care reform, but also has fundamental reforms in funding and affordability for college, higher education. Banking reform is next. We have passed it in the House. We feel very good about the opportunities in the Senate to getting that done.

And, then, also, one of the things that — two things I would add is an energy bill — is an energy bill, as you said, but also dealing with what we see as the loopholes for allowing special interest money in the campaigns in the Supreme Court decision.

And, so, those are going to be at the domestic front. I will — as you know, we just had an election in Iraq, which is key to the responsible withdrawal of our forces from Iraq. We are on target to achieving what the president pledged for this August, and also constantly pursuing the war on terror and our efforts in Afghanistan.


RAHM EMANUEL: So, there’s both foreign policy, as well as at home. And I think that, if you look at this vote on health care, it strengthens our hands both here on the legislative front, as well as internationally.

JIM LEHRER: You say it strengthens your hand, and, yet, Senator John McCain and many other Republicans are saying, because of the way the Democrats — you and the Democrats and the president handled health care reform, there’s not going to be any more cooperation. All those things you just listed, forget it.


JIM LEHRER: Can you cover it? Can a government — can the United States govern itself that way?

RAHM EMANUEL: Well, first of all, you just — I will give you — you could cite that.


RAHM EMANUEL: And I understand that’s why Senator McCain may have said that. That’s his choosing.

I don’t think that’s what the country wants. The country didn’t ask for that attitude or tone. They asked us to come here to cooperate. We’re going to continue to do that. As you also saw just yesterday — and I can cite a different take — Senator Corker, Republican from Tennessee, noted that, on financial regulatory reform, there’s going to be a bipartisan bill.

He knows the Democrats have the high hand here, and they — he — both he and Senator Gregg predicted we’re going to make progress on that. And, so, while Senator McCain may have taken that tone and tenor, I think the American people want something else. And I think some of his colleagues know that that’s right. And the test will be both on education and financial or banking reform to join us in moving this country forward, and not get — act out of anger or a pique of anger and somehow say that you’re going to stop cooperating.

That would not — I’m not in the business of giving political advice to Republicans, but that wouldn’t be what the American people want. And if that’s the tone and tenor you adopt, I think there’s a political price to pay in November. There’s also a price to pay for the country where you decide you’re angry enough that you’re going to stop trying to cooperate on behalf of the country.

JIM LEHRER: In response to that, would the president continue to do what he did on health care reform, say, OK, you don’t want to play, we are going to go Democrats all the way?

RAHM EMANUEL: I mean, Jim, you say that, but, first of all, the president started this process with a bipartisan meeting at the White House about a year ago.

This bill includes fundamental ideas advocated by the Republicans, on wellness, on prevention, on the exchange, on the individual mandate, on buying plans across state lines. In fact, just the other day, after the bill was passed, Senator Grassley, appropriately and correctly, noted that the bill includes one of his ideas on hospitals in the bill.

And, so as the president always said, it will have Republican ideas, even if it doesn’t have Republican votes. And embedded in this bill, both the big ideas, as well as individual amendments and smaller ideas, are Republican policies and Republican initiatives advocated.

Whether they voted for it or not was up to them. And it was a choice they made. We’re going to continue on across the waterfront of issues. You will see it in the renewal of the reauthorization of the leave no child behind legislation, as well as in the banking reform legislation. We will solicit ideas from Republicans, because we think that’s the best thing to do to find common ground.

JIM LEHRER: Are you happy as White House chief of staff?

RAHM EMANUEL: Yes, not as happy as I am being on this show, but, yes, I’m happy.

JIM LEHRER: All right. I mean, you’re going to stick around a while?


JIM LEHRER: There are a lot of stories about you, as you know.

RAHM EMANUEL: You and my mother have read them all.

JIM LEHRER: No, I mean, you’re — you’re at ease? You’re comfortable being White House chief of staff for Barack Obama?

RAHM EMANUEL: Yes. First of all, I very much enjoy the job.

It’s — I would be less than honest if I didn’t tell you it was a stressful 14 months, in the sense of, you come in, and you have a financial meltdown, an economic recession, two wars, three wars, would be the one in Iraq, one obviously in Afghanistan, as well as the war on terror.

And it took a lot to not just get to this point, but to continue to push on. But I find, if you were to do public service, which is what I have done with my adult career and my professional career — I have been fortunate enough to work in the White House, fortunate enough to get elected to Congress, and then fortunate enough to work in the White House again as chief of staff — this is tremendously rewarding. It’s what I have chosen to do with my life.

I find it rewarding. And I find very rewarding to — and then the opportunity the president has given me to help him do what he wants to — and enact the policies he sees in place. It is a — you know, you’re in the cockpit every day. And you get strafed at a lot. But that’s the life I have chosen.

And it’s — when you get things like we have just done on health care or on what we have done on education, just to note those two, it’s why public service is so rewarding. And, hopefully, other people, as I have taught — when I was a member of Congress, when I used to teach kids in high school in my district, I would do — teach a social studies class — I told them, somewhere in their life, they have got to do public service, because you have got to be able to do something that’s more important than yourself, but for your country.

And this is extreme — extremely rewarding. And I’m honored to have that opportunity in my life to do it.

JIM LEHRER: Rahm Emanuel, thank you very much.