Full Episode: Healthcare.gov Repairs, NSA Spying, and Public Opinion

Sep. 03, 2014 AT 3:05 p.m. EDT

The continuing efforts by the administration to sell the benefits of Obamacare; how the NSA collects and shares intelligence while also addressing privacy concerns and the declining public support for members of Congress and the president. Joining Gwen: Karen Tumulty, Washington Post; Tom Gjelten, NPR; Alexis Simendinger, RealClearPolitics; Doyle McManus, Los Angeles Times.

Get Washington Week in your inbox


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

GWEN IFILL: Winners and losers everywhere you look on health care, spycraft, and politics, tonight on “Washington Week.”

The promise in 2010.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From tape.) If you like your insurance plan, you will keep it. No one will be able to take that away from you. It hasn’t happened yet; it won’t happen in the future.

MS. IFILL: The walk-back in 2013.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) If insurers decided to downgrade and cancel these substandard plans, what we said under the law is you’ve got to replace them with quality comprehensive coverage.

MS. IFILL: Complicated explanations almost never work in politics.

REPRESENTATIVE LYNN JENKINS (R-KS): (From tape.) The majority of Americans feel tricked by the rollout of the president’s health care law. We were told, if you liked what you had, you could keep it. Obviously, a trick.

MS. IFILL: Can the administration dig itself out of its health care hole?

SECRETARY OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES KATHLEEN SEBELIUS: (From tape.) Hold me accountable for the debacle. I’m responsible.

MS. IFILL: And can it justify what appears to be years of widespread exhaustive spying at home and abroad?

JAMES CLAPPER [Director of National Intelligence]: (From tape.) We only spy for valid foreign intelligence purposes as authorized by law, with multiple layers of oversight to ensure we don’t abuse our authorities.

MS. IFILL: Covering the week: Tom Gjelten of NPR, Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times, Alexis Simendinger of RealClearPolitics, and Karen Tumulty of the Washington Post.

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. It’s supposed to get better, but so far when it comes to the Affordable Care Act, everything just seems to be getting if not worse, at least murkier. Low enrollment, canceled policies; and in the week’s signature moment, three and a half hours of grilling for the administration’s top health official. Witness this exasperated exchange.

REPRESENTATIVE GREGG HARPER (R-MS): (From tape.) So the president ultimately is responsible. Well, I think it’s great that you’re a team player and you’re taking responsibility. It is the president’s ultimate responsibility, correct?

SEC. SEBELIUS: (From tape.) You clearly – whatever. Yes, he is the president. He is responsible for government programs.

MS. IFILL: That’s a key point because more than anything else, health care opponents want to link the problems with the law to the president himself and to more essential flaws. Mitch McConnell said as much to me this week.

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY) [Senate Minority Leader]: (From tape.) The point is could anybody make it work? I don’t think Albert Einstein could make this thing work. It can’t work. It won’t work. And so I feel sorry for her being put in a position where she’s trying to make something work out that won’t.

MS. IFILL: Having Mitch McConnell feel sorry for you is never good thing if you’re a Democrat. So could Einstein make this thing work, Karen?

KAREN TUMULTY: Well, I think it depends on what this thing is. The computer systems, maybe a few more tech support people could make it work, and maybe they should bring over the NSA for that.

But, you know, almost certainly the computer bugs that have made it almost impossible for a lot of people to sign up, that is going to get fixed – maybe not on the timeline that people would like to see. And then we find out whether it really works because what’s going to happen, what has to happen for this health care system to work as President Obama has promised us that it will is that a lot of healthy people are going to have to sign up for these exchanges along with sick people. We know that people with preexisting conditions, with illnesses, we know that they are very motivated and they are going to sit there and do whatever it takes to get into these exchanges. Now the question is, is it going to function well enough that young healthy people will as well?

MS. IFILL: Well, and we know that right now, young healthy people or anybody can’t really get on the site and that the administration is guilty of at least overstating whether people would be able to keep the coverage they want right now.

ALEXIS SIMENDINGER: One of the things that has emerged, and we’ve all read about it, we probably know people who’ve talked about this, is that there are a small but sizeable number of Americans, a percentage that’s roughly 5 percent are in the individual market that have gotten letters from their insurance companies, private insurance companies, these are the plans that they supposedly liked and wanted to keep, the ones that the president said you could keep.

MS. IFILL: Individual market, not covered by their employer, not covered by –

MS. SIMENDINGER: Right. Not their employer, not Medicare, not VA, right? Not in these large pools already. They’re out there on their own. So they’ve gotten letters from the insurance companies saying, we have to either change and offer you a different set of policies that in some cases might cost more or we’re going to encourage you to go into the pools because we’re revoking or ending this particular plan because it doesn’t meet the prescriptions of the law. And so a larger number than the administration imagined by this time, one month in, are getting letters that are making them feel that they have been left in the lurch.

MS. IFILL: And if the solution is to get online and get an alternate policy, they can’t do that.

MS. SIMENDINGER: And, in fact, the president this week gave a speech in Boston and told – encouraged people to do that, go online, shop. That is what it’s for, he said. That’s what the website is for.

DOYLE MCMANUS: Well, then let’s go back to the website where this whole mess kind of started. Do we know when that website is going to be up and running? And, you know, what’s the effect on the problem Karen mentioned, that you want young healthy people to sign up, if the website is delayed?

MS. SIMENDINGER: So, today, we had an update from the new manager of this challenge. His name is Jeffrey Zients, someone that the president had working for him at OMB, and he gave a one-month update – a one-week update, and he said that they are on track to meet the deadline. They’ve set an arbitrary deadline for themselves to have this working by the end of November.

He also said we expect unexpected things, including some technical outages that they actually had this week, where they lost hours of time for people to be able to use the site. They’re patching it at night now, from 1:00 a.m. to 5:00 a.m. They’re going to do some more fixing this weekend. So within a month, he’s saying that the website should be working smoothly for the majority of people.

TOM GJELTEN: Well, is there a worst case scenario here if – you know, if the website is not fixed on time, does the whole thing at some point – does the whole – it’s based on an equilibrium, right, I assume. And if everything starts to fall apart, does – you know, what happens then?

MS. TUMULTY: Well, people have until April to sign up for this thing or begin to pay a penalty if they don’t sign up. But the truth is that a lot of these policies on the individual market are now going to be cancelled come January. And so a lot of these people, if it’s not up and running by then, are going to be left in the lurch. And the individual market is – you know, it’s a difficult place to buy insurance now because people go in, they don’t have a lot of information. Often, they buy policies that are skimpy. The administration says that President Obama has promised that you could – if you like what you have, you can keep it, that they had grandfathered in all these old policies. The fact is the grandfather clause didn’t work. It excluded a lot of people. And it was drawn –

MS. IFILL: And companies could opt out of it.

MS. TUMULTY: The companies could opt out of it, but it also didn’t apply to any policy that was written after the middle of 2010. And most people renew these policies year to year. So a lot of those people are going to be in the lurch.

MS. IFILL: Let’s speak more – broader about – isn’t the whole idea of insurance that you’re supposed to be in a risk pool, that you’re supposed to share the risk, that you’re paying for something you won’t necessarily get. A lot of the complaints about these cancelled policies or people not getting the policy they want is that they’re paying for something that they didn’t want, like maternity care, if they’re single.

MS. SIMENDINGER: And if there was any analysis this week that pointed to the communications flubs in this hole, it’s that the administration was left being beaten over the head about trying to get people out of what they consider subpar insurance plans and having people cling to those plans as if they were wonderful things they should keep. You know you have a problem in an administration when you’re trying to sell a benefit and you’re finding that the marketplace is clinging to something you consider not worthwhile.

MS. TUMULTY: Although there are people who will argue that, you know, they just need insurance to really cover them in case of catastrophe. There are people who will say, look, I will pay for my own mammogram if my insurance pays for my breast cancer. And so since the administration – since they wrote this bill with a gigantic benefits policy that covers a lot of preventive care, a lot of benefits that maybe you won’t use – if you’re a man, you won’t get pregnant – there’s an argument that preventive care, you know, saves money in the long run. But a lot of people are saying, hey, look, I just want my insurance there for the emergencies.

MR. MCMANUS: Now, a number of members of Congress have said, look, if this thing is such a mess and if you can’t sign up for it, just – can’t we just postpone the deadlines, give people some slack in terms of when they have to sign up?

MS. IFILL: Yeah. Is there any real conversation going on about that?

MR. MCMANUS: The administration doesn’t seem to want to talk about it.

MS. TUMULTY: Well, a number of Democrats are now joining Republicans in arguing for this, including a number of Senate Democrats whose jobs are on the line in the next election.

MS. IFILL: Has there been any discussion at the White House, Alexis, about this, about actually delaying, denying, or a concession that maybe they should have done that sooner?

MS. SIMENDINGER: Yes. And here’s the answer that we get. And I think this is probably a very realistic assessment that they’re making. If the website cannot be fixed, really truly fixed to allow the kind of shopping that you would envision within a certain range of time leading up to the January deadline –

MS. IFILL: In time for the deadline.

MS. SIMENDINGER: – January 1st deadline, as you know, insurers normally say, for all the paperwork, we need several weeks. The plan goes into effect. You can be insured January 1 or you can be insured all the way until March 21st, which is what we were just talking about. So the administration is saying, holding the line, we don’t think we need to enroll, but what they’re telling Democrats quietly is, listen, if it turns out that all of these people that we need for these risk pools – not just the older and the sicker but the younger and the healthier, if they’re not signing up, then we may have to reassess.

MS. IFILL: Then there’s the political fix question, which we are still waiting to see, whether they come up with one at the White House. The president was in Massachusetts this week and he was making the case that it took a while for them to get their health care plan right. And he was also beginning the digging exercise. Let’s listen just a little what he had to say.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: (From tape.) There’s no denying it. Right now, the website is too slow, too many people have gotten stuck, and I am not happy about it. And neither are a lot of Americans who need health care and they’re trying to figure out how they can sign up as quickly as possible. So there’s no excuse for it. And I take full responsibility for making sure it gets fixed ASAP. We are working overtime to improve it every day.

MS. IFILL: Everybody is taking responsibility. Is anything changing?

MS. TUMULTY: Well, again, if this gets fixed in a few days or a week, I think that the long-term consequences may not be so big.

MS. IFILL: Give it a little more than a week, Karen.

MS. TUMULTY: Well, but this does remind me – and the tone of the president’s voice reminds me of the BP oil spill, where you could just sort of see the frustration. And yet, you know, you say I take responsibility and yet nobody’s lost their job over this. Who exactly is being held to account for this?

MR. GJELTEN: Now, during the big shutdown debate, the president over and over said that once that was behind it, he was open to negotiation. Is there any kind of negotiation taking place? What happened to the medical devices tax? You know, are there any legislative changes that might now be considered?

MS. TUMULTY: You know, I think those sorts of things might come up in the budget negotiations, which actually begin this week. We haven’t seen a conference committee in a long time. We actually saw one. But I don’t think that things like that are going to be put on the table in the middle of just trying to get this working.

MS. IFILL: Final word.

MS. SIMENDINGER: I think that the administration is going to continue to try to give these updates that, incrementally, every day, things are getting fixed, and hope that that turns out to be the truth.

MS. IFILL: Well, we’ll be watching it, because that’s what we do. Thanks to both of you.

Now, another look at the rapidly accumulating evidence that very little you communicate or that the German chancellor communicates, for that matter, is really private. The latest drip, drip, drip from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden suggests that the nation’s biggest tech companies are being breached too. And as far as we know, it’s all legal. Is that right, Tom?

MR. GJELTEN: Well, that’s being debated. And I’m not a lawyer so I sort of deal with things on a kind of a dumbed-down level.

MS. IFILL: OK. Let’s do that.

MR. GJELTEN: And there’s one rule that basically underlies all the law here, which is you can’t spy on Americans without a court order.

MS. IFILL: Right.

MR. GJELTEN: But apparently you can spy on foreigners. And that’s what these latest round of disclosures have involved, whether it’s spying on Angela Merkel, or, in this case, it turns out that the NSA found a way to intercept the data as it was transiting through data links into data centers that were held by Google and Yahoo in Europe.

So the argument would seem to be – the legal argument would seem to be that because those data centers are in Europe, they are not – they can assume they’re not American data, therefore it was legal to go in.

However, the data companies, Google and Yahoo are absolutely furious about this, for various reasons. One of them is that their reputations have now been tainted. You know that in Europe, Google has like a 90 percent market share of the search software. That’s much higher even than in the United States. You’re now seeing people closing their Gmail accounts in Europe because they don’t want their data compromised. So Google is losing, Yahoo is losing, people are upset, governments are upset. It’s really become a mess.

MS. TUMULTY: Is the United States the only ones doing this? I mean, this data in Europe, are Europeans coming through it?

MR. GJELTEN: Well, we – you know, there was this sort of embarrassing episode when French and Spanish newspapers were reporting that NSA was going through the data of those citizens, and then it turns out, according to the NSA, that, in fact, the intelligence services in those countries were actually helping the NSA do it. But this kind of defense can actually backfire in a way because – for two reasons.

One, it makes intelligence sharing, to the extent it does happen, more difficult because now, the governments and the publics in those countries are going to outraged to find out that their governments are involved with the NSA. It’s going to make it harder for those intelligence services to cooperate with the NSA.

The other thing is that to the extent that the argument, the defense is, everybody does it, then, you know, the Chinese get off the hook because, you know, they’re engaged in a lot of cyber espionage. They feel that that’s a defense they can use. The French are engaged in a lot of industrial espionage against the Americans. So, you know, there’s almost no way to see whether it works out well.

MR. MCMANUS: Tom, you mentioned the spying, the interception of data from Google and Yahoo. Are companies like that now shutting those doors that – or those windows or whatever the right metaphor is, that the NSA was using? In other words, is the NSA actually losing capability across the board because of these revelations?

MR. GJELTEN: Well, that’s interesting, Doyle, because the Google and Yahoo saw this coming. I mean, there’s been so much out there in the last few months and they’re describing it as – they’ve been kind of in a race with the NSA. They have an idea where their vulnerabilities are. They’ve been trying to patch them. They’ve been trying to encrypt the data. NSA has some pretty sharp decryption capabilities. They’ve gotten ahead of Google and Yahoo.

But, you know, they’re trying their best to close the vulnerabilities, but the NSA was ahead of them; in this case, further ahead than these companies realized. Now, you know, what’s going on now, you know, I would presume that there would be some negotiations behind the scene, but those companies are embarrassed. The NSA didn’t want to talk about it. This is all so secret, we just don’t know.

MS. SIMENDINGER: Tom, one of the things we hear a lot about at the White House is murkiness about what the president knew about the – I’m talking specifically about the surveillance of other heads of state. Now, more broadly, what do we know about he did know about that? And the administration is very eager to talk about the president’s review – this review through the end of the year as if decisions are made, things are being ended or repaired or fixed or adjusted. What do we know about what’s going on from the White House?

MR. GJELTEN: Well, there is a review. There are actually two separate reviews. And I think – and there are competing legislation on Capitol Hill as well to sort of – one, you know, much more modest than the other. It’s clear that there will be changes. But, you know, there’s also this blame game going on that’s opened up within the administration.

I mean, this extraordinary situation this week where General Keith Alexander, the head of the NSA, basically said, ambassadors are asking us to get personal information on the heads of state or the heads of government in the countries where they work, to which the diplomatic corps really objected, and they said, we’re not. We had several ambassadors or former ambassadors, people like Tom Pickering coming out and saying, this is outrageous; we never ask for that kind of stuff. The White House is sort of saying, we didn’t know about this. Meanwhile, intelligence officials say there’s no way that the White House did. So, you know, they’re all blaming each other.

MS. IFILL: But you know what puzzles me is what members of Congress knew about it because we heard the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee say, this is an outrage. And we heard the head of the House Intelligence Committee say, well, this is the kind of thing we do and everybody knows it. I don’t quite understand how those two things can be true in the same body of lawmakers.

MR. GJELTEN: Well, Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said that if there is disagreement within the committee about whether they knew about it it’s because one – some committee members were doing their homework and other ones weren’t. But the ones who – people like Adam Schiff in California really took umbrage at that because he said, I’ve been doing my homework and I didn’t know about it. Mike Rogers never specifically said he knew about it.

MS. IFILL: He can’t, but he kind of hinted. Oh, this will be fun.

Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between what’s policy and what’s politics in Washington, but interestingly enough the American people don’t seem to have that problem. Both the president and Congress are clocking record low levels of public approval of their performance. And it’s not just about health care. It’s about Syria and about shutting down the government and the general idea that no one here is worried about them.

But that’s not the case. Health care reform, if it ever works properly, could be the biggest federal government expansion in decades. And therein lies the partisan rub, Doyle.

MR. MCMANUS: That’s right. But one of the things we’ve been seeing all year long – well, actually, not just this year – is that when things are going badly in Washington, everybody’s numbers go down, Republicans’ numbers go down; Democrats’ numbers go down. And all of us see polls all the time.

But there was a poll this week, Wall Street Journal/NBC, and its numbers were striking enough that they are worth going back to for a minute. President Obama hit his lowest job approval ever in that particular poll, 42 percent; John Boehner, the speaker of the House, 17 percent positive, not so good; Republican Party, another record low, 22 percent positive; Democrats a little better, 37. Thirty-seven isn’t all that good most of the time. Congress, three-quarters of the American people think Congress is part of the problem, not part of the solution. And then, finally, only 29 percent say they want to reelect their own congressman; about two-thirds say throw the bum out, and they’re talking about their own congressman.

Now, what’s going on here? We finally found something that everybody in America agrees on and that is this thing isn’t working across the board.

MS. IFILL: Except we were sitting at this table a couple of weeks ago and we said, the president is riding high, you know, the Republicans have embarrassed themselves and now – that didn’t last.

MR. MCMANUS: That was – that was just two weeks ago. The lesson here is that when there’s a government shutdown and there’s a mess, it does drag everybody down. And then you’ve got to go back to the fundamentals. Is the economy working? Are jobs being created? And the answer is no. And people are still angry about that.

But where all of these issues get tied together is I think that the most wonderful question is the federal government part of the problem or part of the solution? People are looking at Washington and they’re seeing a government shutdown. A problem for the economy drags consumer confidence down, slows the economy. Government created the problem, right? Health care website – who created that problem? NSA spying – who created that problem? So these are all problems that the federal government seems to be creating and not solving. And that is what’s pulling everybody down.

MS. TUMULTY: Doyle, if we could rewind you a bit here. You said the lesson here is that if the government shuts down, everybody’s numbers go down. We have the possibility of this happening again in the next couple of months. Did they learn this lesson? Do these kind of poll numbers make any difference?

MR. MCMANUS: I think certainly the leadership of Congress and – you know, let’s be precise – it’s the House Republicans we’re talking about, yeah. I think a lot of House Republicans did learn a lesson.

But one remarkable thing is the American public – about half the American public still thinks there’s going to be another government shutdown, even though I think most of the money in Washington will be against one. And that is still having a drag effect on the economy. So the shadow of the government shutdown is still over us.

MR. GJELTEN: Why do you think the president’s numbers are down? What does this say about the perception of his leadership, his style, his decision-making?

MS. IFILL: Competence.

MR. MCMANUS: Yeah. Competence. Yeah. Well, you have to start out – you have to go back to the economy. If the economy is lousy and not picking up, it’s the president’s fault. If there’s a government shutdown, even though more people blame the Republicans than the Democrats, the president should have fixed that. And then you add on these other issues, it doesn’t help. He hasn’t found a way to help the picture.

And I think that’s where health care turns out to be so important. He has staked so much on that. That’s a core question of whether the federal government can manage something as complicated as this. Most Americans don’t think the federal government can manage something that complicated. Interestingly enough, in the case of state exchanges, the picture is different because people have more confidence in state government. They see the state government doing things; they’re more familiar with it; it’s closer to the ground.

MS. TUMULTY: And their computer systems are working.

MR. MCMANUS: And their computer systems are working. But what this – where the health care episode has played into this is it’s reinforced in a real vivid way that basic feeling on the part of the American public that the federal government, and, in particular President Obama’s federal government, can’t actually make the trains run on time.

MS. SIMENDINGER: Really quickly, is the Affordable Care Act more popular, less popular in all of this hubbub?

MR. MCMANUS: Amazing thing: flat line. Same level of popularity. Actually, the Affordable Care Act, “Obamacare,” was already unpopular in general. A plurality doesn’t like it over those who do like it. You can get into the details there and see who is there. That really hasn’t changed a whole lot. But that’s probably because on something as gnarly as this, it takes the public a while to change its views.

MS. IFILL: And maybe it takes – it puts the responsibility on the federal government to provide why federalism is a good thing and not just the morass. That’s where we picked up and that’s where we leave you tonight. Thank you everybody.

We have to leave you for now, but the conversation will continue online on the “Washington Week Webcast Extra.” It streams live at 8:30 p.m. Eastern and all weekend long at pbs.org/washingtonweek. That’s where you’ll also find links to the rest of the great stories our panelists are reporting. Keep up with daily developments now seven nights a week on the PBS “NewsHour.” And we will see you here, next week, on “Washington Week.” Good night.


Full Episode: Budget vs. Obamacare, Next Step for the Fed, and Reviving Gun Control Debate


Full Episode: Budget Battle, Obamacare, US-Iran relations, Syria


Full Episode: Government Shutdown, Debt Ceiling Debate & Health Insurance


Full Episode: Government Shutdown, Short-Term Debt Deal, Yellen to the Fed


Full Episode: Post-Shutdown Washington: Political Divides & Dysfunction


Full Episode: HealthCare.gov Troubles & GOP Intra-Party Battle


Full Episode: Election '13 Takeaways, Healthcare Rollout Woes Continue


Special: Webcast Extra: 2014 Midterms and Obama’s Secret Weapon


Special: Webcast Extra: Obama's Governing Woes and Christie in 2016


Support our journalism

Washington Week Logo

© 1996 - 2024 WETA. All Rights Reserved.

PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization

Support our journalism


Contact: Kathy Connolly,

Vice President Major and Planned Giving

kconnolly@weta.org or 703-998-2064