Post Politics: Health-Care Details, White House Czars, More

Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 2, 2009 11:00 AM

Washington Post White House reporter Michael D. Shear was online Sept. 2 at 11 a.m. to discuss the latest news about the Obama administration, Congress and more.


Michael D. Shear: Hey everyone. Sorry I'm a few minutes late. Let's get right to it.



Fairborn, Ohio: Why doesn't the president go on prime time TV and explain to the common folk the positives of a public option for healthcare? I think if most people understood it, they would be for it. I am a healthcare worker, and it needs to be explained in simple terms.

Michael D. Shear: We might as well start here. There are plenty of reports today, including in our paper, that the White House is now considering some kind of effort like this that might include some kind of speech or address -- essentially pressing the "reset" button on the sales job for health care.

The White House acknowledges that August didn't go that well for them, but it's unclear how much of a real shift this new strategy might be. The reports I've seen suggest that he will stress the principles on healthcare that he's already spoken about for some time now.

Stand by. We're seeking more information about how the president plans to reengage next week.


Dallas: Mr. Shear,

I'm concerned about the number of White House advisers (Czars) Obama has put in place. I believe the current number is 32. My question is: Will the presence of so many Czars redistribute the power of the Congress to the White House?

Michael D. Shear: Interesting question, Dallas.

I'm not sure how the presence of so many czars might do what you suggest. Another interesting question is whether the use of so-called czars is advancing the White House agenda better than it might otherwise have been advanced under a different structure.

There are probably arguments, for example, that the auto bailout decisions have been streamlined and more successful than they might have been if they were coordinated under, say, the commerce department.

On the other hand, the use of a health care czar (nancy anne deparle) has not seemed to lead to success -- at least so far.


Avon Park, Fla.: Do you think that the White House made a mistake in deferring to Congress earlier on? I do. I think that Obama should have used the megaphone of the White House to promote a specific plan back in June. I'm concerned that he's doing that too late. What was the strategy in deferring to those various Congressional committees?

Michael D. Shear: Isn't it fun to be a next-morning quarterback?

President Clinton and his wife were accused of being too top-down with Congress during the 1993-94 fight over health care, and the Obama administration believed they had to avoid that characterization.

Now, they are being accused of being too hands-off and too detached.

Which is correct? I think we won't know until this plays out more. There's definitely been a problem with defection on Obama's left. But there's also a belief among some that the left will come back when they realize it's all on the line.


Florissant Valley, Mo.: I agree that Mr. Obama should make a prime time presentation. And he should use charts. And he should bullet the five major changes he would propose. Above all, he should make clear tnat the buck will stop with him: reassure folks that he would do nothing to put folks' current care in jeopardy.

Michael D. Shear: It's funny you talk about charts. I covered Gov. Mark Warner in Virginia years ago when he went around the state with a Power Point presentation to explain his tax overhaul. (I sat through it, like, 40 times.)

People laughed about the wonky, PowerPoint governor. (And who can forget Ross Perot and his charts during the 1992 campaign.) But it did work for Warner to help people understand a complicated topic. Perhaps Obama needs to do something similar?


Newark, Del.: Why has no mention been made in the health care package of tort reform? Malpractice suits and unneeded tests are increasing the cost of health care.

Michael D. Shear: If you ask Republicans, they would say that the reason Democrats don't want to pursue tort reform is because they are beholden to the trial lawyers, who tend to be big supporters of Democratic candidates.

Democrats during this debate have made some concessions to the fact that there need to be some legal reforms, but are largely not relying on that as a central piece of their plans. They would also argue that fairness requires that people who get hurt by hospitals or doctors have the opportunity to recover.


Boston: Hey Mike, lets get to something really important. Any chance the Redskins ticket scandal will get Congress to act on the scandal that is the Ticket business overall?

You try to buy a $50 ticket and get $20 in service fees. Such a con job. And try to get tix to a popular event and the TicketMasters tell you they are sold out and you have to buy it from the ticket broker they own. It is pathetic.

Michael D. Shear: A person who knows their priorities!

I suspect the White House is not eager to take on another regulatory issue. Now, if the question is about golf or basketball, that might be another issue.


Just to be clear: Considering what came out in the most recent (and all earlier) CIA document release, isn't it about time you guys in the media stopped using an Orwellian euphemism like "harsh interrogation program," when it's always been completely clear that we're talking about torture here. Now that the truth is out there (we've read those memos, too), why do you and your Beltway cronies insist on whitewashing what was done using this bogus Bush-approved lingo?

Michael D. Shear: I think that we're always walking a fine line when it comes to very loaded terms like "torture." (Or pro-choice, pro-life for that matter). We need to not be drawn in to using the word torture to describe something that is legitimately debatable. But I agree we should not be drawn into using euphemisms when there is clarity.

I'm not the one that makes those decisions for our paper, much less the rest of the media. I suspect that my bosses are constantly reevaluating where we are on that issue.


Las Cruces, N.M.: To what degree has the "death panels" mania helped cover up the White House's stumbling on health care? It seems to me that some opposition to Obamacare is rational, reasoned, and under-reported?

Michael D. Shear: It's interesting that sometimes having the opposition go to an extreme can actually help. That was certainly the case when a few Republicans like Rush Limbaugh called Sonia Sotomayor a "reverse racist" in the days after her nomination, which made all Republicans look like extremists.

In the health care fight, the death panel thing has given the White House a bit of an extreme to push back against. But I'm not sure it has "covered up" the other stumbling, which we have written a fair bit about.


A person who knows their priorities! : Come on, that wasn't fair. Some of us are able to obsess about multiple issues at once!

Michael D. Shear: Ha!

Just kidding, of course. Obsessing is a great thing to do, especially about multiple things.


Helena, Montana: Why aren't there any reports on how our religious leaders view the torture debate? The silence from religious leaders is deafening. Is it because there is no upside for them to air their views? No reporter is interested? Actually, On Faith featured a discussion about torture in May -- The Torture Debate -- and there have been several other commentaries on the site during the last two years.

Michael D. Shear: Here's an interesting question, and a quick reply from our folks at


Washington, D.C.: Why should the president go on prime time TV? The people who are opposed to this legislation aren't going to be swayed by this (probably won't even watch). Seems that there are any number of places to find the details of this plan yet there remain people who believe in things that aren't in the bills. Any prime time speech would be a waste of time. Sad really.

Michael D. Shear: It's possible that you are right. But the White House believes there are three ways to command a massive, live television audience: Oval office speech, joint address to congress and a prime time press conference. The joint address is probably not warranted here, and press conferences are not that great at focusing on one topic.

What a speech might do is give the president a chance to focus his argument in front of a lot of people. Would he convince the doubters? Maybe not all of them. But it would be an opportunity to refine and focus his arguments.


Alexandria, Va.: Is the administration really doing as bad a job as people seem to think?

Yes, I know public support has gone down, but did anyone really believe anything different would happen? Health care reform was always going to be difficult to get done, and be controversial and bring out a lot of people yelling about how the government was going to deny families or seniors needed care. Lots of people think we need reform, but they mostly don't agree on what form it should take, or simply don't know what form it should take.

Now, what I just said doesn't mean Obama will succeed. I could have said the exact same thing a few years ago about the Bush administration and SS reform, and we all see where he got with that. But I really don't see anything different happening, in Congress or in the public, than what I would have expected. I'm willing to wait and see how things turn out before passing judgment one way or the other on how he's managing things.

Michael D. Shear: A constituent with patience. How novel.

In fact, this is what the White House argues -- that we're in the middle of a game that will go on for several more months, and that it's premature to judge. My sense is that there's still a possibility that he succeeds in getting something through, or that things continue to get more difficult and that he has to retreat.

But Alexandria is right to be cautioning against premature declarations either way.


Michael D. Shear: Time to go. Thanks, everyone for the good questions.



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