Full Episode: Affordable Care Act Improvements, Income Inequality, and Remembering Nelson Mandela

Jul. 08, 2014 AT 1:39 p.m. EDT

The positive November job numbers and what it means for the U.S. economic recovery, Obama’s continued push to sell the Affordable Care Act, the impact of the ruling to allow Detroit to apply for bankruptcy, and remembering Nelson Mandela. Joining Gwen: Jackie Calmes, The New York Times; David Wessel, Wall Street Journal; Michael Fletcher, Washington Post.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

GWEN IFILL: Health, wealth and the promise of prosperity, news on all fronts this week, plus our tribute to Nelson Mandela, tonight, on “Washington Week.”

The stock market bounces back; the unemployment rate hits a five-year low; the Affordable Care Act may be turning the corner.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From tape.) This law is working and will work into the future.

MS. IFILL: Is it all too good to be true?

REPRESENTATIVE ERIC CANTOR (R-VA) [House Majority Leader]: (From tape.) While the White House wants to claim that HealthCare.gov is now working, we know that “Obamacare” is still plagued with problems.

MS. IFILL: Outside Washington, Detroit is headed into bankruptcy; pensions are disappearing, plus low-wage workers say they’re being left out.

WOMAN [Protester]: (From tape.) People cannot survive on $8.25 in this country.

MS. IFILL: And we remember Nelson Mandela.

MAN [Reporter]: (From tape.) There’s Mr. Mandela, Mr. Nelson Mandela, a free man taking his first steps into a new South Africa.

MS. IFILL: Covering the week, Jackie Calmes of the New York Times, Michael Fletcher of the Washington Post, and David Wessel of the Wall Street Journal.

ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital this is “Washington Week with Gwen Ifill.”

(Station announcements.)

ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.

MS. IFILL: Good evening. As you know, the world is in mourning tonight for Nelson Mandela, the South African freedom fighter and global icon who passed away this week. We’ll share our thoughts at the end of the broadcast.

In Washington, the week’s other news has been about the economy, good news on the jobs front today, a health care website that may finally be working, and the struggles that continue away from the nation’s capital. Starting with today’s jobs report, are we seeing the long-awaited recovery that everybody has been talking about or what? David?

DAVID WESSEL: Well, I think the economy is moving in the right direction. It’s moving slowly, but it’s moving in the right direction. We’ve had two months now with over 200,000 jobs added. The unemployment rate is as low as it’s been in the last five years. And the hiring this month was across the economy – manufacturing, construction, even state and local.

So it’s definitely a good sign, but it’s important to remember that there’s still a lot of people out of work. One third – more than one third of the unemployed have been out of work for six months or more, and those people are going to have a hard time getting hired.

MS. IFILL: OK. So that’s one piece of today’s news. The other piece of today’s news is about the Health Care Act, of the week’s news, which is that at the White House today, they are linking the good economic news with the finally good news about the Health Care Act. Is there a connection between the rebound in the economy and the Health Care Act?

JACKIE CALMES: Well, the link is that this law, which, actually, for all the attention to it now, is more than three years old, that, you know, we have this jobs growth you might say despite the Affordable Care Act, despite the predictions from Republicans and its other opponents that this was going to be a job killer, the consistent description for it. And Jay Carney opened up his briefing today at the White House by saying – suggesting that the jobs growth consecutively each month have coincided with the time period in which the Affordable Care Act has been on the books.

MS. IFILL: Is that a plausible connection?

MR. WESSEL: No. (Laughter.) The one case they do have is that there are fewer people working part time involuntarily. And that was supposed to be something that was going to happen because of the Affordable Care Act.

MS. CALMES: Right.

MR. WESSEL: I think the other interesting thing is it looks like the shutdown and all that fear, it didn’t really stop the economy at all.

MS. IFILL: But the word that they’ve been using instead is that because the economy is so resilient and that’s why it’s happened.


MS. IFILL: Well, that’s not – but, however, that’s the good news part of it. And we’re going to get back to that in a moment. But there’s only – it only goes so far because just under the surface this week, there was a lot of evidence of uncertainty in Detroit, which is headed to bankruptcy, and among minimum wage workers, who were demanding a bigger piece of the pie. There are a couple of ways of looking at that.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) The combined trends of increased inequality and decreasing mobility pose a fundamental threat to the American dream, our way of life, and what we stand for around the globe.

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH) [Speaker of the House]: (From tape.) There’s no doubt that under President Obama, our country has fallen into what I’ll call a new normal: slow economic growth, high unemployment, stagnant wages.

MS. IFILL: Take your pick at which you want to believe, but what we know is that the root of this is a certain amount of disillusionment which runs pretty deep, Michael.

MICHAEL FLETCHER: Right. And I think there’s some dynamics in the economy that really were there even before the downturn that continued to evidence themselves. And the big problem is how do you divide this economic pie? It goes all the way back to really, this problem, in the late ’70s, where the people at the top are getting more of the pie and working people are getting less. And it used to be that – (inaudible) – people could sort of get a good living wage in this country, and that’s changing a lot.

MS. IFILL: What is the difference between a living wage and a minimum wage?

MR. FLETCHER: It’s grown bigger, I tell you that. A living wage is enough money to live – to sort of raise a family on. And you think about the key things in our economy, the key things that someone has to do raising a family – education, health care – these are the things that have gone up most in price; meanwhile, wages have been flat over the last 12, 13 years. Real wages have been flat in this country and the insecurity is growing. You mentioned Detroit. Pensions, for the first time are – you know, public pension are on the chopping block in this bankruptcy, which has implications for – you know, for other cities that are stressed fiscally. So, you know, clearly, working people are in a moment here that they haven’t been in a long, long time.

MS. IFILL: Is there a disconnect here, David, between what Michael is talking about in cities like Detroit and in McDonalds restaurants around the country and what we’re seeing in these numbers – economic numbers?

MR. WESSEL: No, I don’t think so. I think that – so the tide is rising but Michael’s absolutely right, that more and more of the goodies are going to people at the top. Lloyd Blankfein, the CEO of Goldman Sachs, did an interview with Fortune magazine, and he said, this country is very good at creating wealth, but not very good at distributing it. And I think the president was picking up on something. And you could see all around the country municipalities raising the minimum wage. That’s a sense that it’s gone too far, that this gap between winners and losers is uncomfortably large.

MS. IFILL: Now, one of the other things that the president was trying to do to close this gap, let’s go back to the health care law. The people who were supposed to benefit the most greatly from this are people who were going to – are the poor. And no one was saying that out loud, but that was going to be one of the intended benefits. Because of the flawed rollout, has that changed?

MS. CALMES: Well, it’s really too early to say. But the point he was making was that, you know – and this is all part of a week in which he has felt good enough about the progress made on the website that he went on the offensive. He’s been on the defensive for over two months. And that he – as he said in his speech this week, that the single biggest factor that causes economic insecurity for some people and prevent them from getting on the ladder to the middle class are healthcare costs or, you know, something happens within their family that just literally drives some people bankrupt. And that is what he’s trying to – so this is perhaps the biggest step he’s taken to sort of address the problems he was talking about.

MS. IFILL: But do we know the health care costs are going down as a result?

MS. CALMES: Nobody really knows. I mean, it’s just – right now, what we do know is that there’s enough of a decrease – the trend is such that you can’t just attribute it to the fact that the recession is over.

MR. FLETCHER: But it’s been interesting that you spoke about the ACA. Already, you know, half the states have not expanded Medicaid. And that leaves a lot of people, the most vulnerable people out of the benefits of this law for now at least. I mean, that can change if you get, you know, different leadership in those states.

MR. WESSEL: But in those states that have expanded Medicaid, the poor really are – as long as the paperwork gets done.

MR. FLETCHER: Well, they’re the prime beneficiaries.


MS. CALMES: And if I can make – in these states where the governors or legislatures have chosen not to expand Medicaid, they’ve called it a fiscally prudent decision – that it costs too much money. But what we’re doing here is – what we’ve done in the past is taxpayers have given money to hospitals that serve a lot of uninsured or indigent patients. So the money from the taxpayers was going to hospitals. That money would – under the law, no longer goes to the hospitals that serve a lot of indigents. It was designed so it goes to people, who, by getting some insurance coverage through Medicaid, will treat their health problems sooner and could be less costly.

MS. IFILL: Let me ask you something, Michael, about this minimum wage idea and also this Detroit bankruptcy. What was the federal government’s role in this supposed to be? Could the president by fiat, by executive order raise the minimum wage, or could he have stepped in at some point in this long circuitous process in a big city like Detroit and saved it from going over the brink?

MR. FLETCHER: Well, some argue he could have saved Detroit, but, politically, I think that was not in the cards. I mean, you think about – you say the word “bailout” in Washington, you see what kind of reaction you get. And this is what it would have taken for Detroit. And they needed a lot of money; $18 billion in debt is a lot of money.

And the minimum wage, the president has talked about raising this. In the state of the union address, I think he proposed a $9 minimum wage from $7.25 to $9. Recently, the administration has indicated they’re in favor of a $10 minimum wage, but, you know, the $9 one didn’t move. You know, there are a lot of people who were convinced that you raise your income by raising your education level; you raise your skill level and you’re going to get a better wage for that.

And the answer to that is that people say, look at, say, auto manufacturing. What was inherent about those jobs that they would pay $27 an hour, and you’d have, you know, pensions, and you would have, you know, Cadillac health care plans? It was really nothing about the job itself. It was the leverage that the unions brought and the leverage those workers brought that brought those – (inaudible).

MS. IFILL: The leverage you’re talking about is what’s gone away. It seems that the idea of using pensions and making pension no longer a guarantee is a big – is at the heart of a lot of this and that means that people no longer – what was considered sacrosanct no longer is, and in exchange for that they’re supposed to sacrifice for the greater good.

MR. WESSEL: Well, but I think on the pensions, the problem is that for private sector workers, they’d already gone through this.

MS. IFILL: Right.

MR. WESSEL: And so it was very hard to convince taxpayers that they should pay taxes in a city like Detroit so their public employees could get very generous pensions. And so I think this was inevitable. It began when it began to cut back the private pensions – I think the interesting thing in Detroit is that the bankruptcy judge ruled that even though the constitution says you can’t cut pensions, he said you can, and I’m certain that Rahm Emanuel in Chicago is looking at that, like I want some of this too.

MR. FLETCHER: And the mayor of L.A. and there are lot of cities around the country –

MS. IFILL: Yeah. In California as well.

MR. FLETCHER: Actually, yes, San Jose, a lot of places are facing this big pension –

MS. CALMES: That was a huge decision, that judge.

MS. IFILL: So let me ask you about this though, because one of the other discussions going on in Washington is about unemployment benefits – extending unemployment benefits. Whether it’s a tradeoff for the budget or whatever it is, what is the chance that that’s going to happen and how much does the good economic news depend on something like that?

MR. WESSEL: Well, John Boehner said that the good economic news means it’s not necessary. But I think the people on the other side would say, look, there are four million people who’ve been out of work for six months or more. All of the decline in unemployment last month was in people who had been unemployed for a short period of time. So isn’t it cruel to take away these unemployment benefits that were meant to be temporary at least until the economy gets stronger? And other people say the problem with you cut the unemployment benefits, you may discourage people from ever going back to work. They may try and get on disability. So it may be shortsighted. I’m not sure where it’s going. Nancy Pelosi said one thing. John Boehner said another. It’s not clear that the Democrats have the muscle to do it.

MS. IFILL: And, Jackie, whatever it is, there’s got to be a sales job underway. So that was the key this week on the Affordable Care Act, to get this thing working, but also begin to sell it. First, they sounded like they were going to put it off, then the president came out and said, you know, I’m going to stir it up. Which is it? Where are they?

MS. CALMES: Well, I think they are – they decided that the best thing for them to do is to be on the offensive, to stir, to get –

MS. IFILL: What does that mean though, being on the offensive? Giving another speech?

MS. CALMES: Well, if they’re talking about the – you know, he apologized for the website’s problems. They will continue. As stories come up, they’re going to have to respond. They’re going to have to be on the defensive in the future as well. But they’re promoting, you know, the things that people actually are benefiting from. The 85 percent of us who have employer-provided health insurance who actually get benefits as a result, you know, a child who’s under 26 who’s on your policy, the people who have preexisting conditions and can get insurance.

But, you know, but they really – you know, they weren’t gaining anything by being on the defensive. You saw what it did in the polls. So it’s like this is his legacy, his signature achievement. He’s got to stand by it. And they’re bringing in – one thing now, in addition to fixing the website, they’re bringing in back from – he had thought he had fled, but Phil Schiliro, who used to be President Obama’s congressional – chief congressional lobbyist, two years ago fled to New Mexico for a new life outside of Washington after a quarter – 30 years here – he’s coming in to sort of be a troubleshooter against problems that arise in Congress with the – yeah.

MR. WESSEL: I think it’s wishful thinking. I think if we all believe it’s going to work, maybe it will work better. I think they’re going to continue to be plagued until the system is functioning. And it looks like that’s going to be quite a while.

MS. IFILL: It seems like in the case of all of the things you were covering this week, in the end, we’re talking about the gap that exists, whether it’s gaps in coverage, gaps in income, gaps in the jobless rate, is there actually anything on the table either coming from Republicans, Democrats, green people – it doesn’t matter – which would speak to closing those gaps or are we still just talking about

MR. FLETCHER: You know, David referenced, you know, the minimum wage increases we’ve seen in some localities and states around the country. And there’s even talk in Congress – I mean, it’s really on the left now, but even of bolstering Social Security benefits because people look at these retirement gaps – David again mentioned that pensions have gone away pretty much in the private sector. But, you know, what’s replaced them? Really not much. A lot of people are really insecure when they’re looking to retirement, people like Elizabeth Warren saying we have to do something to bolster Social Security, which is against the tide, of course.

MR. WESSEL: I think there’s a common understanding that there’s something wrong with the – what we used to think of as the opportunity society, that it’s harder for people to rise from poverty up to the middle class. I’ve heard Paul Ryan talk about it and I’ve heard Barack Obama talk about it.

MS. IFILL: They just don’t have the same solutions.

MR. WESSEL: They don’t have the same solutions. And, frankly, I’m not sure either one of them has a workable solution, even if they can get it through.

MS. IFILL: OK. Well, thank you all very much. That’s – we’re going to end that part of our discussion, but we have another of the discussion that we want to continue because we don’t want to leave you tonight without turning to the passing of one of the most significant leaders of our time. Nelson Mandela shaped the world he lived in and deeply influenced an American president who says his first political act was to protest apartheid.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) The day he was released from prison, he gave me a sense of what human beings can do when they’re guided by their hopes and not by their fears. And like so many around the globe, I cannot fully imagine my own life without the example that Nelson Mandela set. And so long as I live, I will do what I can to learn from him.

MAN [Reporter]: (From tape.) There’s Mr. Mandela, Mr. Nelson Mandela, a free man taking his first steps into a new South Africa.

MS. IFILL: (From tape.) Nelson Mandela captured the world’s public imagination when he stepped from behind bars in 1990 after 27 years of captivity, a freedom fighter, a political leader, and a symbol of (shocking, just ?) change. He was 71 years old by the time he stepped out of jail that day, but he was vibrant figure, a global force of moral authority.

Mandela made a big splash when he toured the U.S. in the summer of 1990. We devoted an entire program to his June visit to Washington. Here’s a part of that week’s conversation between moderator Paul Duke and Steve Roberts, then of U.S. News and World Report.

PAUL DUKE [Moderator “Washington Week in Review”] : (From tape.) Watching him speak before the joint session today, he really is – he really does cut a striking figure. He’s charismatic. He’s got a patrician bearing. He’s a compelling speaker. He really is a born leader.

STEVE ROBERTS [U.S. News and “World Report]: (From tape.) Well, I was in the chamber today, Paul, watching him. I was lucky enough to have a front-row seat, and you’re quite right. But it’s not the kind of presence we often associate with a political leader. It’s a quieter presence.

To some extent, Nelson Mandela is a Rip Van Winkle character. I mean, he went into jail 27 years ago and there are still shreds of almost an outdated rhetoric to what he says. I do think that members of Congress were reassured today, Paul. I talked to several right after the speech who were very heartened by his emphasis on a mixed economy, and talking about a free market, and feeling that he had buffered some of his hard-edged rhetoric about state central planning and communism.

MS. IFILL: (From tape.) In 1993, Mandela shared the Nobel Peace Prize and, in 1994, became South Africa’s first post-Apartheid president.

PRESIDENT NELSON MANDELA [South Africa]: (From tape.) This is for all South Africans an unforgettable occasion. It is the realization of our hopes and dreams that we have cherished over decades.

MS. IFILL: CNN’s Bernard Shaw asked him at the time what legacy he hoped to leave.

MR. MANDELA: (From tape.) I would like to be remembered not as anybody unique or special, but as part of a great team in this country that has struggled for many years, for decades and even centuries to bring about this day.

MS. IFILL: (From tape.) Nelson Mandela was 95 years old.

MS. IFILL: Jackie, one of the interesting things in watching the president yesterday in the briefing room was the connection he made between his life journey and Nelson Mandela’s. Is there a real connection there?

MS. CALMES: Well, it certainly is in terms of shaping him. I think it has the virtue of being true that he – some of his earliest, the president’s earliest involvement in politics was around the apartheid movement. And, in that, he’s hardly different from a lot of people.

I mean, when I first started covering politics, the anti-apartheid movement was a major force in covering Congress in the mid-’80s that debate. It’s got to be one of the president’s – he said this summer, when he went to South Africa and he ended up not being able to see President Mandela because he was so ill, he said, I don’t need a photo opportunity. But it’s still – it has to be one of his biggest regrets that having seen – he saw him in 2005 when he was a newly elected senator, but he never – you know, the first black president of the United States and the first black president of South Africa, that would have been quite a photo opportunity.

MS. IFILL: That would have been something. You know, Michael, the interesting thing about Mandela, during all the years that we’ve been working as reporters and the years as we’ve been traveling this country, there was a real connection domestically between Americans in general and him.

MR. FLETCHER: Yeah. I mean, first, there’s so many parallels actually between the South African apartheid and America’s own history of racial oppression and kind of rise from that and the progress they’ve made. So I think Americans, like this story resonates, you know, with people in this country.

And what’s interesting – (inaudible) -- outpouring. I mean, people were – you know, the (Arcadia ?) Public Theater had, you know, words up honoring him; people spontaneously showed up at the South African Embassy; politicians on the left and right praise him. I mean, effusively. Former Governor Schwarzenegger said basically that Mandela’s example, his principles, steadfastness, his – and then ultimately, his forgiveness that he was able to show sort of is the best proof we have of the existence of God.

So the kind of praise has been really amazing. And that strike – it’s striking is still different than when he came out of prison because there was a lot of wariness about him.

MS. IFILL: There were a lot of questions about that.

MR. FLETCHER: Yeah. Exactly.

MS. IFILL: David, you know, what drove this at the time was the sanctions movement, the idea of punishing South Africa until it released Mandela. We remember the music. We remember the chants. We remember the protests. Did it work and does it still?

MR. WESSEL: Well, the evidence is that it definitely hurt South Africa. They were denied a lot of foreign investment. American companies stopped putting money in there and they were unable to sell to us. But I think the evidence is that that may have embittered some of the Afrikaner leadership and led them to develop nuclear weapons, for instance, because they felt isolated, but it had a huge psychological effect. The fact that their sports teams couldn’t play in world competitions, the fact that they were seen as pariahs, that came at the same time that enforcing apartheid was becoming increasingly expensive, and the ANC had such a successful political strategy. So I think it contributed, but it wasn’t the only cause.

MS. IFILL: But it wasn’t the only cause. Well, there were a lot of costs and there were a lot of memories and quite resonance this week, the death of Nelson Mandela. Thank you all so much.

We have to leave you a few minutes early tonight to give you the chance to support your local stations, which in turn support us. But the conversation continues online on the “Washington Week Webcast Extra,” streaming like at 8:30 p.m. Eastern Time and all weekend long at pbs.org/washingtonweek. Once you’re there, you can also find my take on Nelson Mandela and an invitation to join our community of readers here at “Washington Week” by checking out our winter reading list recommendations. Great holiday gifts all of them. Keep up with daily developments now seven nights a week on the PBS “NewsHour.” And we’ll see you here again next week, on “Washington Week.” Good night.


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