GWEN IFILL: Kathleen Sebelius, women’s pay equity, 2016 politics and the civil rights anniversary, all tonight on “Washington Week.”
SECRETARY OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES KATHLEEN SEBELIUS: (From clip.) This is the most meaningful work I’ve ever been a part of. In fact, it’s been the cause of my life.
MS. IFILL: “Obamacare’s” chief architect resigns with 7 million signups under her belt and a trail of controversy behind her. What’s next for the president’s signature domestic achievement?
2016 heats up with all eyes on the Clinton and the Bush dynasties.
FORMER FLORIDA GOVERNOR JEB BUSH (R): (From clip.) We had a Bush, then we had a Clinton, then we had a Bush, then we’re going to have a Clinton?
FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: (From clip.) The hard questions are not, do you want to be president, can you win. I mean, the hard questions are, why?
MS. IFILL: Then two discussions on equality. A women’s pay equity bill goes down.
SENATOR BARBARA MIKULSKI (D-MD): (From clip.) I said, square your shoulders, put your lipstick on, and let’s fight another day.
MS. IFILL: And the presidents club gathers at the LBJ Library to discuss Johnson’s signature domestic achievement 50 years later.
FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: (From clip.) The real influence of a president is not found in the headlines. It can only be judged with time.
MS. IFILL: Covering the week, Alex Wayne of Bloomberg News, Amy Walter of the Cook Political Report, Alexis Simendinger of Real Clear Politics and Michael Duffy of TIME Magazine.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis. Covering history as it happens. Live from our nation’s capital, this is “Washington Week with Gwen Ifill.” Once again, live from Washington moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. With the exit of Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and the arrival of her nominated replacement, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the White House sees a fresh chance to push ahead with implementation of its health care law.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From clip.) There are seven-and-a-half million people across the country that have the security of health insurance, most of them for the very first time, and that’s because of the woman standing next to me here today. And we are proud of her for that. (Applause.)
MS. IFILL: White House officials insisted that Sebelius’ exit was her idea, and that Burwell will pick up where she left off, if that’s even possible, Alex.
ALEX WAYNE: Well, I think she’s got some catching up to do. She comes to a new agency. She doesn’t have a lot of health care experience in her background, at least her professional background, although she’s involved in those issues a little bit as a White House official. But she’s got catching up to do. She’s got to meet the constituency of the Health Department, which consists of hospitals, insurers, huge numbers of patient-advocacy groups and ordinary Americans interested in these – in these issues. So I think it’s going to take some while and some time.
And in the meantime, the department is going through this phase where they have to accept filings from insurers for rates next year. It’s a very delicate and rather controversial issue, and the department’s leadership might be in transition while it’s happening.
MS. IFILL: Well, let’s talk about the department’s leadership, because one – there is an some – an open question whether Kathleen Sebelius jumped or was pushed or was slow-motion jumped, I don’t know. (Laughter.)
MR. WAYNE: You know, I think –
MS. IFILL: What happened?
MR. WAYNE: I think it was basically a mutually agreed-upon resignation. She’s been working very hard trying to promote this law sort of out in the hustings, going to places like Texas and Arizona and Florida and Tennessee. She’s been traveling almost every week, it seems, for about the last six months, really trying to drive enrollment at the ground level.
Now, in the meantime, her critics say, she took her eye off of the federal exchange and the website collapsed. That’s what led us to this point.
But I think she’s also pretty tired of this job. She’s been there five years and she’s put a lot of work in. She got to this magic enrollment figure, seven-and-a-half million people, so she can – she can kind of leave with a feather in her cap. So I think she came to the president. I believe them when they say she came to the president and raised the idea. I doubt the president fought her very much.
MS. IFILL: She saw daylight and she dashed for it.
AMY WALTER: (Laughs.) All right, so Sylvia Burwell still has to go through a confirmation process. Talk to us a little bit about this, because it’s not as if – I don’t know, Congress seems like they’ve been a little polarized on this issue –
MR. WAYNE: (Laughs.)
MS. WALTER: – so I assume these hearings are going to have some fireworks.
MR. WAYNE: The hearings are going to have fireworks, but she seems to be a pretty cool customer. Sebelius certainly was. Sebelius was able to go to these hearings and just kind of take the incoming and coolly respond, not with the answers that lawmakers wanted but she was able to rebut them. I expect Burwell will be able to do the same. And the Senate has changed its rules so that it’s really hard for Republicans to block her from being confirmed now that you only need 51 votes. Democrats can do it without any Republican support at all, and they can’t filibuster.
But there’s going to be fireworks. And one major step might be the vetting process, that she has to file a bunch of paperwork, financial disclosures, et cetera. That has – that has doomed secretaries for the Health and Human Services Department in the past, a guy named Tom Daschle. (Chuckles.) But –
MS. IFILL: On the other hand, she had already been confirmed in another pretty high-level position, so –
MR. WAYNE: She had. But I think the vetting process for secretary is a little –
MS. IFILL: It’s a little different.
MR. WAYNE: It’s a little stiffer.
MS. WALTER: Alex, when you look at the president’s choices that he could have made to succeed Sebelius, what is it that attracted him – you know, at least what did he say attracted him to Sylvia?
MR. WAYNE: Well, he likes her a lot personally and he respects the work she’s done at the Office of Management and Budget. Usually with a Cabinet secretary position like this, you can go a couple of directions. You can get a prominent politician – Kathleen Sebelius or Tom Daschle – or you can get sort of a functionary, somebody who’s good with numbers, somebody who’s good at management. And I think in this case he wanted somebody who would go into the department and manage it, to put a – put a tight grip on the people, for example, who are building the website.
MS. IFILL: You know, that’s – you raise an interesting question, because you can’t fix something unless you really know what went wrong, and there are many questions still about what actually went wrong. Was it just that the (boomer ?) secretary didn’t get tech, or was it that government procurement rules make it hard to get the best people to do the tech? Is there any agreement at all on what really made this thing blow up?
MR. WAYNE: Well, if we – if we set aside the Obama administration, which I don’t think agrees to any of the theories out there, you can put together a few things.
One was that – the limitation they sort of put on themselves in terms of selecting a contractor. They ruled out companies like Google or – IBM was actually a potential bidder, but some of the tech companies you think of as really moving stock markets were not eligible for this contract at all, so they limited themselves there. They didn’t hire a key contractor to run the contract.
And they made some policy decisions at the White House that caused some problems. During the 2012 election, the White House decided to delay a bunch of regulations that were really important to finish work on the exchange, and there’s a lot of thought that that delay caused – had something to do with a lot of the problems.
MS. IFILL: And of course, there’s always politics, which drives a lot of this. I know, shocking to hear.
MS. WALTER: Oh, I know, it’s very shocking.
MS. IFILL: It’s my segue, because I have to – (laughter) – I’ve resisted talking about 2016, I admit it. It seemed too soon. It seemed too speculative, too pat. But the truth is, we can’t look away, and recently we have seen why: Hillary Clinton, who has been flirting for a while, and Jeb Bush, whose own mother said we’ve had an awful lot of Bushes and Clintons lately.
FORMER FLORIDA GOVERNOR JEB BUSH (R): So you – I get the point. I get the point, and it’s something that I’d have to – if I was to run, I’d have to, you know, overcome that. And so will Hillary, by the way.
MR. : Right. And does your –
MR. BUSH: Let’s keep the same standards for everybody.
FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: (From clip.) I am obviously flattered and, you know, deeply honored to have people ask me and people encourage me, and am I thinking about it. (Cheers.) But I’m going to continue to think about it for a while.
MS. IFILL: OK. Should we start taking them both seriously now, or one of them, or neither of them, Amy?
MS. WALTER: Yes, we have to take them both seriously. They’re taking it seriously. And more important, their donors and party leaders and establishment figures, they’re taking it seriously. They’re putting a tremendous amount of pressure on these two.
And what I find fascinating is the fact that – and you saw it in these clips – is that we’re watching these two have a very public sort of introspection, right? They’re having this debate for all of us to see about the pros and cons of running for president. Usually those things, right, when you get a new job or you’re thinking about a new job, you put the pros down here and the cons down here. They’re doing this for us. And you heard, you know, obviously Jeb Bush, for one, talking about, gosh, there have been a lot of Bushes and Clintons, but he talks a lot about the impact on his family. He talks about wanting to run the kind of campaign where he said he doesn’t get caught in the vortex of mudslinging. Hillary Clinton has also been saying things similarly, like, gosh, it’s kind of ugly out there. And you know –
MS. IFILL: I remember Karen Tumulty going to New Hampshire and getting that same speech from Scott Brown, who announced this week that he is running for the Senate in spite of all these terrible things.
MS. WALTER: That’s right.
MS. IFILL: So is this just an exercise that candidates go through so they can stretch this out as long as possible?
MS. WALTER: Well, both of them say they want to make this decision this year, and they have to make this decision this year. I mean, I think – I think we know that to be the case. And it doesn’t really surprise me, though, that these are – for them, these are real concerns, which is, how on Earth do you, knowing what you’re getting into, want to go through this again, put your family through this again? And knowing, for somebody like Jeb Bush, for example, he hasn’t been on the ballot in over 10 years. This is a very different world that he’s walking into. In 2002, when he ran for reelection, I don’t think I had a BlackBerry. We certainly didn’t have Twitter and we didn’t have the kind of 24/7 minute-by-minute campaign coverage. That’s a big difference.
ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: So Amy, thinking about – you were mentioning the groups or the – or the powers that be that are really urging Jeb Bush. What does he represent to some portions of the Republican Party when they have a Rand Paul or a Ted Cruz or a Chris Christie? What does he represent –
MS. WALTER: It’s a great question because he’s both old and new. In some ways, he’s very familiar to them. The establishment loves him because they know him and they feel comfortable with him. But he also does something that not a lot of the other candidates can do who is an establishment figure, and that’s reach out to a new group of voters. That’s reaching out to minorities, something that Republicans have had a very tough time doing in these last two elections. He speaks Spanish fluently. He’s married to a Mexican-American woman. This is somebody who talks openly about immigration reform in a way we heard him this past week talking about it, right, not being a felony but an act of love to actually try to come here illegally. So this is somebody who can broaden the base, even though he has the name Bush.
MR. WAYNE: So is the election over, or is there still room for somebody other –
MS. WALTER: Yeah, we’re all done. We’re going to go home on –
MS. IFILL: We’re now – let’s just pack up here. We’re done.
MS. WALTER: That’s –
MR. WAYNE: Particularly Clinton. I –
MS. WALTER: That’s – well, particularly – this is what’s fascinating. You have on the Republican side, yes, you have a lot of establishment figures coming and telling Jeb Bush, we want you, we want you, want you. If you look at the polls of Republicans, he’s not the front-runner in the way that Hillary Clinton’s the front-runner. In fact, the Republican Party has a very deep bench right now and no clear front-runner. On the Democratic side, you have a clear front-runner and no bench. And that’s the pressure on Hillary Clinton that’s different from the pressure on Jeb, which is Democrats saying, oh, my gosh, if you don’t run, well, this is about – this is about it. I don’t know if we can win without you.
MS. IFILL: Let me get this right. The Republican bench are people who ran last time, essentially, and maybe one or two others, like Rand Paul, who had not run before.
MS. WALTER: We’ve got a lot of new people.
MS. IFILL: Who?
MS. WALTER: Marco Rubio.
MS. IFILL: OK.
MS. WALTER: Rand Paul.
MS. IFILL: He didn’t run last time. Chris Christie.
MS. WALTER: Scott Walker. Chris Christie. Jeb Bush.
MS. IFILL: OK. Never mind.
MS. WALTER: OK. But – (laughter) –
MS. IFILL: But the Democrats have a very – who’s on their shallow bench?
MS. WALTER: So you have the sitting vice president of the United States –
MS. IFILL: Right.
MS. WALTER: – which usually is considered the – right, the person that’s going to take the torch. But he’s got his own baggage and his own issues. He’s not particularly popular.
And then you get past him and you start to go, well, OK, there are some – certainly there are some women in the mix, somebody like Elizabeth Warren, who liberals love – senator from Massachusetts.
MS. IFILL: Governor of Maryland.
MS. WALTER: Governor Martin O’Malley from Maryland likes to put himself in there.
MR. WAYNE: Andrew Cuomo.
MS. WALTER: And Andrew Cuomo, the governor of –
MR. WALTER: So if they think they can run presently –
MS. WALTER: They do think so, but –
MS. IFILL: I guess –
MS. WALTER: OK.
MS. IFILL: Amy, I guess the only cautionary tale is, things change, you know, and the things we think are true two years out change. No?
MS. WALTER: Yes, they do.
MS. IFILL: OK.
MS. WALTER: You’re right.
MS. IFILL: Well, we’ll – yeah, OK, you give me one, I give you one –
MS. WALTER: Yes, you’re totally –
MS. IFILL: – we move on, and we’re both wrong, it turns out.
MS. WALTER: Yes.
MS. IFILL: Thank you, Amy.
MS. WALTER: Thank you, Gwen.
MS. IFILL: Well, the presidency has its power and it has its limits. In a moment, we’ll talk about how presidential power changed civil rights law, but this week, when it came to gender pay equity, the president’s power was limited to signing executive orders calling for transparency and accountability only for federal contractors. The next day the Senate blocked a far more – far-reaching pay equity bill. So was this debate real? Was it for show? What was it really about?
MS. SIMENDINGER: You know, no one made any bones about saying it was about turning out Democratic voters that will be needed in a midterm election when Democrats, including President Obama, have been candid and forthright about how they’re expecting what the president’s called hibernation among the voters that will be needed to actually turn out in November.
So what the – what they’re looking at – and this is a very old playbook that Democrats have played with before; President Obama has prospered with this playbook – is that they need women voters to turn out and specifically they need unmarried women voters. And so when you look at –
MS. IFILL: Why is that? I mean, what is it about unmarried women voters that – what, they lean more heavily Democratic?
MS. SIMENDINGER: So in the last election we had – a quarter of the voters who participated were unmarried women.
MS. IFILL: Hm.
MS. SIMENDINGER: And two-thirds of them went for the Democratic candidate, Barack Obama. So what they’re looking at is, where can we, among young people, among our demographic women, among minorities – how can we encourage them to turn out in November in ways that they did in 2008 and 2012 for President Obama, but they might not because he’s not on the ballot, or they’re discouraged about the economy or they’re discouraged about Washington’s ways. And so what they’re looking at is these ingredients – pay equity, fairness, the idea of child care, health care – interestingly enough, if you – the pollsters are saying if you mix the two ingredients, health care and pay equity, you can get unmarried women’s intensity, the intensity of their support for Democrats.
So there was a pending bill, and that this – third time through the turnstile, and every single Republican voted against it.
MS. IFILL: So it’s an issue. They just created an issue.
MS. SIMENDINGER: It’s an issue.
MS. WALTER: Well, is this an issue for Republicans? Do they see this as an issue? Because it seems both on unemployment extension, now on this issue, minimum wage debate – they seem more than happy to say, go for it, Democrats. See what you can do.
MS. SIMENDINGER: So part of the rebuttal from Republicans, in the Senate in particular, was that this was a show, that this was part of political theater, and they made – they did a prebuttal about this upcoming vote. They said Harry Reid, the majority leader, was staging this in order to state a claim for Democrats and to appeal to women.
But Republicans are saying, look, we have an agenda too that’s – we are – we are against discrimination in compensation, and we want to help women in the workplace through flexibility and through employer-provided benefits. We’re not opposed to that. What they’re saying is that they don’t want to mandate that employers do certain things.
MR. WAYNE: Republicans don’t seem to be very scared of this issue. What – why does the White House think that a failed Senate vote is going to get voters out to the polls?
MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, if you listen to the president, as the leader of the party, whether he’s talking at fundraisers or in the speech talking about this particular legislation, what he’s saying is it gives us the opportunity to say Republicans are hardhearted, mean people who don’t care about women, who don’t care about single women who are trying to raise a family, and he’s using it very much as a – as a political bludgeon. So whether or not voters know about the vote itself, it gives him a chance to say no Republicans voted for this, or they’re opposed to this, or the Paul Ryan House-passed budget by the Republicans is the mean sandwich, the “meanwich.”
MS. IFILL: The “meanwich.”
MS. SIMENDINGER: The “meanwich.”
MS. IFILL: There was a very famous moment in which the president talked about using the – I guess in the State of the Union – the pen and the phone. So these executive orders, no matter how far-ranging they are not, are an example of the pen.
MS. SIMENDINGER: So the president said, look, you know, we’re – the Senate has this vote, and I’m going to show what I can do on my own.
So that was part of the pen, the executive –
MS. IFILL: Coordinated.
MS. SIMENDINGER: – very coordinated – executive action. It was an executive order that deals with contractors and a memorandum that deals with information gathering that goes into the government. The president said: This can only go so far, but I want to do my part. And people say that – lots of people agree that through – attacking this problem through contracting does have an effect. It sets an example. And that it can spread.
MS. IFILL: OK. Well at least that’s what they’re counting on. We’ll see if it actually works. Thank you all.
Most of the surviving members of the President’s club met in serial fashion at the LBJ library this week. One after the other, presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, took turns praising the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson and the accomplishments of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. One striking thing these men have in common, an appreciation of just how hard it is to get big things done.
Earlier today I spoke with TIME Magazine’s Michael Duffy about President Obama’s revealing speech.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Those of us who’ve had the singular privilege to hold the office of the presidency know well that progress in this country can be hard and it can be slow, frustrating. And sometimes you’re stymied. The office humbles you. You’re reminded daily that in this great democracy, you are but a relay swimmer in the currents of history, bound by decision made by those who came before, reliant on the efforts of those who will follow to fully vindicate your vision.
MS. IFILL: Michael Duffy, the author of “The President’s Club,” joins me now. For any president, it’s all about vindicating your vision, isn’t it, Michael?
MICHAEL DUFFY: There’s always time for another coat of paint, even after you’ve left the White House. And so when four presidents got together this week – in pieces, in different order – to go to the Johnson Library, they all had a slightly different story, a slightly different take to make. President Bush talked about education. President Carter talked about civil rights. But President Obama talked about Lyndon Johnson and civil right and race, but he also talked about power and the presidency – its uses, its opportunities and its punishments.
MS. IFILL: He actually quoted Lyndon Johnson in saying: What the hell is the presidency for if not to accomplish big things.
MR. DUFFY: You could read President Obama’s speech as a – as a really good historical analysis of the great society and Lyndon Johnson’s struggles with his own parties and civil rights. But you could also read it as a – as a pretty revealing defense by President Obama of his presidency, his decision to seize the moment and do health care early in his presidency, as well as his decisions now as his second term really reaches a midpoint, to do executive actions on things like immigration, criminal justice, guns, because he knows he can’t get other things done through – legislatively. So when he asks, what the hell is the presidency for, in Lyndon Johnson’s words, he’s also asking it about his own term.
MS. IFILL: Matter of fact, it’s interesting to look at all of the presidents who were there. For Bill Clinton, he came out of the box on health care. For Lyndon Johnson he came out of the box on civil rights. For President Obama, he came out of the box on health care – and, of course, the economy got in the way too. But – and in the case of George W. Bush, he had – came out of the box on war in some respects, things that he had to accomplish. There’s a connection between them that’s more similar than one would thing.
MR. DUFFY: They all have had big struggles in their first terms, and sometimes uncertainties in their second terms if they get them. They – President Obama also said something else I thought was really useful. He noted that each presidency is the work of not just one man but of multiple presidencies.
It took President Clinton to start health care, President Obama to finish it. It took Harry Truman to start Medicare and Lyndon Johnson to finish it. These works take decades, presidents of different parties. And he said, you know, we’re just relay swimmers in a great current of history. And I think whenever a president speaks at another president’s library, they are mindful of history’s long innings.
MS. IFILL: In fact, John F. Kennedy started civil rights and then John F. – Lyndon Johnson finished part of it. But he wasn’t the last president to have to speak to that issue.
MR. DUFFY: Oh, no. And nor is it over now. And that’s one other thing President Obama said, others followed. It’s a continuing struggle and a continuing campaign that other presidents who follow President Obama will have to pick up the baton and swim with.
MS. IFILL: It was really interesting to me to hear George W. Bush talk – something he has said before and probably said in talking to you – that it takes time before people begin to understand a president’s accomplishments.
MR. DUFFY: He’s betting on it. And it’s one of the things I think he’s – he feels very confident that history will redeem him. He’s told his friends that. He’s not in any hurry to prove it. Other presidents come, I guess, into retirement with lots of years ahead of them and begin long campaigns to make sure that the historians get it right. That tends to be more typical. George W. Bush is a little unusual.
MS. IFILL: And listening to President Obama’s speech, did it sound like the ruminations of a second-term president to you?
MR. DUFFY: You know, it sounded like someone who has now appreciated both the possibilities and opportunities of this office as well as its difficulty. He said, you know, sometimes progress is slow. He said it’s a frustrating job. He says you get used to being stymied, and sometimes you have to fall back on the fact that you can go down the hall, you know, and look at – look at the other presidents who came before it and see that, over time, eventually, they too were appreciated.
MS. IFILL: And it came back around today in talking about Secretary Sebelius and talking about their bumps and the bruises that they both suffered, and he could have been speaking about his entire presidency.
MR. DUFFY: I think one of the great things about speeches like this one is that it was kind of, in addition to being about big issues like race and power, it’s also about the human elements of just having this job and what it does to you, and the scars and bruises it leaves on your back. And as President Obama has stayed longer, we hear more about that. And I think that’s kind of good for everybody to know, especially in this political age.
MS. IFILL: Especially from our former presidents. Michael Duffy, thanks a lot.
MR. DUFFY: You bet.
MS. IFILL: And thanks to everyone here at the table with me.
We have to leave you now. But for – but the conversation will continue online on the “Washington Week Webcast Extra,” streaming live at 8:30 Eastern time and all week long at PBS.org/washingtonweek. We’ll chat about, among other things, how Medicare paid millions to some doctors and why we’re just now hearing about it. And I’ll be online Thursday at noon for my monthly webchat. Be sure to send me your questions.
Keep up with daily developments now seven nights a week on the PBS “NewsHour.” Have a blessed Passover and we’ll see you here next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.