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Can President Obama Get Back In The Game After Health Care 'Fumble'?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Sitting in the chairs for a shape-up this week are writer Jimi Izrael, with us from Cleveland. From Boston, health care consultant and contributor to National Review magazine, Neil Minkoff. Here in Washington, Paul Butler, professor of law at Georgetown University. And Corey Dade, contributing editor for The Root. Take it away, Jimi.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thank you, Michel. And, hey, fellas, welcome to the shop. How we doing?

PAUL BUTLER: What's up?

NEIL MINKOFF: We're doing good.

COREY DADE: What's up, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Hey, making it work. All right, well, let's get things started. Now we all know the rollout of the Affordable Care Act - well, hasn't gone as smoothly as we might have hoped, some of us, anyways. You know, somehow our government can spy on world leaders' phones but we can't launch a working website. You know, Michel, my son can launch a website. Anyway - but I digress. Yesterday, President Obama...

MARTIN: You should sign him up.

IZRAEL: Right, you know what I'm saying. Yesterday, President Obama ate some humble pie. Let's drop that clip.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I am very frustrated. But I'm also somebody who, if I fumble the ball, you know, I'm going to wait until I get the next play, and then I'm going to try to run as hard as I can and do right by the team. So ultimately, I'm the head of this team. We did fumble the ball on it. And what I'm going to do is make sure that we get it fixed.

IZRAEL: Wow. Thanks for that. You know, and Mitt Romney was on CBS this morning eating out on Obama's stumble fumble. Oy. But, you know, the president, he vows to get back in the game. Corey Dade, did he ever really leave it? And what do you make of all this, bro?

DADE: Yeah, he didn't really leave it. But he did what Americans usually want their politicians to do - fess-up or own-up to mistakes that occurred on their watch. And that's what he did. It was an unusually contrite president that we saw yesterday. It was an unusually humble president. But it speaks to his integrity. This is his legacy. He's going to do whatever he needs to do to fix it. Now the bigger issue is that, you know, this is a problem for the insurance companies.

They've already set their prices for 2014 insurance plans based on phasing out the current plan, hence the cancellations. So, you know, if they allow people to keep their plans from 2013, as Obama wants, fewer of the younger healthier people are actually going to join the exchanges. And if fewer people who are younger and healthier join the exchanges, that actually increases the risk pool and perhaps imperils the affordability of health care. That's supposed to be the centerpiece of Obamacare. So they got to work this out. This is a hot mess.

IZRAEL: Dr. Neil, now you're a health care consultant now, but you used to be a primary care doctor. Can the fix Obama offered on canceled - you know, the fact that he offered on canceled insurance plans, can it really work?

MARTIN: You know, I have to ask, though, what does work mean in this context? What do you mean? You mean allay people's political anxieties or do you mean - what? Offer more insurance to more people at an affordable price?

DADE: Because this was - this is a political fix.

IZRAEL: The former.

MARTIN: That's the question.

DADE: It's a political fix.

IZRAEL: I think the former.

MARTIN: Yeah. All right. Neil?

MINKOFF: So - yeah, so more germane is I actually worked for a health insurance company and I was a commissioner for the Group Insurance Commission in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. And the short answer is, no. It cannot work. And it can't work for a number of different reasons, one of which was already discussed. But beyond that, one of the reasons that each exchange is state-based is that health insurance is regulated on a state-by-state basis by the different department of insurances. And just the ability for their to go back and do a due diligence on the financial implications of changing the risk pool takes a lot more than between now and January 1. The train is left the station.

DADE: Yep.

IZRAEL: Yikes. Prince Paul, Paul Butler. Weigh in here, bro.

BUTLER: So I like the president when he's strong and assertive, not when he's all humble and apologetic. He has nothing to be sorry about. Health care was a bloody mess. If you had a minimum-wage job, then getting sick was an unaffordable luxury if you had to go to the doctor. So, you know, he's fixed - or those problems are on their way to being fixed now. Hundreds of thousands of people are eligible for Medicaid who weren't eligible before. So this is the signature act of his administration. It's the most important law he'll ever be a part of in his life. Mr. President, act like you know.


IZRAEL: Woah, Prince Paul...


IZRAEL: ...Put him on blast.

MARTIN: Go ahead, Neil.

MINKOFF: So can I jump in here?


MINKOFF: The problem I have is that the president's analogy was way off. He didn't fumble the ball. He's the coach of the team. He's the leader of the team. And while I agree that millions of people had - it was a luxury for them to get sick - there were better game plans to give the team to solve that problem than the game plan that was implemented. And the problem isn't that the ball was fumbled. The problem is that the game coaching was incorrectly done.

MARTIN: What's your better idea, Neil?

MINKOFF: Oh, you want me to get all wonky with you? I could give you, like, six hours on this. But more access to...

MARTIN: Well, try. Just give us one minute, go ahead.

MINKOFF: ...Catastrophic care, better risk pools, being able to do less comprehensive benefits, but more in the way of catastrophic care and allowing those to go across states. I mean, literally, I could do hours on this.

BUTLER: Well, maybe if you had gotten that through Congress...

IZRAEL: OK. Can I be the voice of reason?

BUTLER: Maybe if you'd gotten that through Congress, it would be all good. But you didn't, the president did. It's the law, you know, get used to it.

MINKOFF: But if it's the law, how come it's not being implemented as the law?

MARTIN: I just think that, you know, how many generations of people recognize that this was a problem? I remember having a conversation with the chair of the Republican National Committee, might have been - well, it has to have been, you know, 12 years ago - and him saying - who is a very decent man, a very compassionate man - saying, yes, we all know it's a problem. But nobody's going to stick their arm into that buzzsaw 'cause whoever sticks their arm into that buzzsaw is going to get it cut off.

BUTLER: Right.

MARTIN: So, you know, where's the political courage there? I mean, it's just it's - you know, these are big problems. And when people try to fix them, and then you sort of - I don't know. I just feel like, where was the leadership before in this issue that everybody's recognized there's been a problem, when you have, what, like, a third of your population or a fourth of your population has no access to affordable care or has to go to an emergency room, which is so much more expensive for everybody. I mean, I don't - it is a hot mess, though. I mean, there's no hot mess.

BUTLER: Having said all that, right.

MARTIN: It's a technical term. Textbooks will show in the future, hot mess, right, under the Affordable Care Act headline. The subhead will be, hot mess.

IZRAEL: Can I be the voice of reason?

DADE: Uh-oh.

MARTIN: Wait a minute.

BUTLER: It would be a first.

DADE: Uh-oh.


IZRAEL: No, no. Listen, listen. All change - all meaningful change is trial and error. You know, you got to give him a shot. You know, you got to give him a good chance. Let him get through this. And at least he tried.

MARTIN: It's not about him. That's the part that I find so fascinating.

DADE: I agree completely.

MARTIN: That so much conversation is - it's not about him.

DADE: But they're making it about him. That's the way they can...

MARTIN: Who's they?

DADE: ...Actually try to weaken the plan. Critics, Republicans...

BUTLER: Media.

DADE: ...Conservatives, even the media.

MARTIN: OK. You're listening to our weekly Barbershop roundtable. We're joined by writer Jimi Izrael, health care consultant Neil Minkoff, journalist Corey Dade, law professor Paul Butler. Back to you, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. All right, so now we're talking about politicians. You know, we got one that's kind of had some issues owning up to his own problems. You know who I'm talking about. That guy who looks like he could be living, or should be living in a van down by the river. That's right, Toronto mayor - Toronto mayor Rob Ford. First he - now look, look, look, look - first he said he never smoked crack. Then he admitted he had, but only during his drunken stupors. Ohhh. You know, he's refused to step down. And this week, he's had to field questions from City Council. Now drop that clip.


UNIDENTIFIED COUNCILMAN: Mr. Mayor, do you still have zero tolerance for drugs, guns and gangs?

ROB FORD: Absolutely.

COUNCILMAN: Mr. Mayor, have you purchased illegal drugs in the last two years?

FORD: Yes, I have.

IZRAEL: Woah. I love this guy. I mean, he needs a spot on SNL. This guy is a classic. You know, all that said, listen, Rob Ford and his brother - you know, they're in talks to get their very own reality show - but Toronto's City Council voted today to strip, strip, strip the mayor of his duties. Everyone says he needs to go, that he should resign. I am not so inclined. I always admired - listen, I admire those people that dig in. You know, he's not a perfect man. He's got some personal issues. He hasn't been charged with a crime. And if you talk to people that live in Toronto, like I have, you know - you know, he's kind of wacky, but he's doing a decent job. You know, I mean, we have Marion Barry, and now, you know, Canada has Rob Ford. You're welcome, Canada. Neil Minkoff - Neil Minkoff, what do you think?

MINKOFF: I find this guy unbelievably entertaining. The thing that I really love about this guy is he doesn't seem to quite understand the word politician. He doesn't seem to get the job description, which is to say benign things and to say, well, I don't know where this controversy came from, and of course not. And then to act all contrite and to say that he's going to seek rehab and to accept Jesus Christ as his personal savior to get him through the hard times. He's done absolutely nothing from the politician playbook, which is why we all find him so refreshing.

IZRAEL: You got that right. Paul Butler.

BUTLER: You know, he's got a medical condition, so he shouldn't resign, but he ought to take a leave. It's like any other condition. It's probably, I don't know, addiction, maybe some kind of mental health issue. And we don't want to overly stigmatize those things. We need to treat them like they are medical conditions that can be cured.

IZRAEL: Corey Dade, do you even care about Mayor Ford?

DADE: Of course. As someone who grew up under the mayorship of Marion Barry, I got to tell you, you know, Marion Barry called, he wants his pipe back.

BUTLER: Oh, man.

IZRAEL: Oh, nooo.

BUTLER: That's low. That's low.

IZRAEL: But wait a second. You know, Marion Barry did have a crack problem, and he's managed to have a pretty stoic, arguably affective political career, so...

DADE: Right. And so it gets to sort of the issue, second chances in politics. There's always - usually - a chance for a second act. In this case, I'm not going to say this was a victimless crime, in so far as, you think about the public trust that people may feel has been violated here. But, you know, overall, you know, this guy is not going to be voted out of office, probably. His powers are going to be weakened. But, you know, we've seen politicians, you know, recover from worse than this.

MARTIN: Can I asked Neil this question? Though, Neil, I know you're not practicing at the moment, but you are trained as a doctor and you worked in health care and so forth. I mean, just from the standpoint of his own health, shouldn't he take a break, step away?

MINKOFF: Boy, that's a tough one. So I don't really know anything about the man except what I've read in the media over the last couple of weeks. I'm not convinced that he needs to. I don't think that there's any imminent danger or threat to his health. There's an imminent danger or threat that he might do something foolish while under the influence of some sort of drug or some sort of product. And so I could see why the City Council would move against him. But there's no direct, imminent health threat that I could see that would preclude him from doing his job, should he step away from the pipe.

MARTIN: That's interesting. Well, he says that he's under the care of professionals at this point

IZRAEL: Professional what?

MARTIN: I think we better leave this topic for now. So let's just - OK, let's just move along here. Paul Butler, I understand that you want to talk about Tina Turner. She's relinquished her U.S. citizenship recently. She's been a longtime resident of Switzerland. And she says that she doesn't have any plans to reside in the U.S. in the future. It seems like people are really fascinated with this. Why are you?

BUTLER: Big shout out to the private dancer for saying, just because I'm born here doesn't mean I belong here or have to stay here. I love the idea that people can choose their country like they can choose their religion. I wish everybody had that opportunity.

IZRAEL: They don't?

MARTIN: Yeah. Well, no. I mean, it is the mark of a free society, right? I mean, that you can leave when you're ready to leave, right? I mean, this is what totalitarian societies are the ones that lock the gates and say, you have to stay here and work here.

DADE: Unless, you're Latino and you're trying to come here to the United States.

BUTLER: Exactly, right.

MARTIN: That's a different question. Leaving and coming are two different things, are they not?

DADE: But picking and choosing what country you live in.

MARTIN: OK. So, Corey, what are you saying? Are you saying that you're a fan of open borders? Everybody should be able to live wherever they want, no matter what?

DADE: No, no. I was just throwing in the fact that the idea of people picking and choosing what country they live in is - it's a slippery slope. For someone like Tina Turner, she has that leeway. If anything, this is a great way to get around or avoid continuing to pay U.S. taxes. The worldwide tax system for the United States is huge.

MARTIN: I think that the taxes in Switzerland are rather significant, and so...

DADE: Yeah, as a Switzerland resident. But she's a U.S. resident. So there's an issue about what taxes she's paying. But she's lived in Europe for pretty much as long as she lived in the U.S. So I don't have a problem with it. At the end of the day, she's still an American icon. She'll still be rolling on the river - the Mississippi River that is - for the rest of her days as far as I'm concerned.

MARTIN: Neil, what do you think?

MINKOFF: Well, the question is, what do taxes have to do, have to do with it? Who needs a fortune when a fortune can be stolen?



MINKOFF: Best I could do.

MARTIN: Yeah. Yeah. That's pretty good.

IZRAEL: That's not bad, bro. That's not bad.

MARTIN: That's not bad. Jimi, what do you think?

IZRAEL: I think - I know something about this. My uncle Michael Williams (ph) immigrated to Canada, maybe, 20-odd years ago, and he gave up his - I mean, he relinquished his American citizenship. And, you know, he hasn't looked back. And I don't blame him. You do what you got to do. You make yourself a home, whether it's where you were born or where you are. You know, it's like Rakim said, you know, it's not where you're from, it's where you're at.

DADE: Yes, sir.

MARTIN: Is anybody mad at her? I mean, is anybody mad at her? I know it's - you know, Corey raised an interesting point that there are people who are just, literally, dying to get here.

DADE: Yeah.

MARTIN: And so I think for some people, they find it very remarkable that anybody would kind of voluntarily - which she is voluntarily - I mean, she's not saying that she hates the U.S. I mean...


MARTIN: ...She's not making some political statement. I mean, I think this is really more about her husband.

DADE: And she relinquished her citizenship. She didn't renounce.

MARTIN: Right.

DADE: That's a legal distinction.

MARTIN: Right.

DADE: When you renounce, then you have to go through a much more complicated process, and you don't get it back.

IZRAEL: Right.

BUTLER: You know, but she's saying that she does not want to be an American citizen anymore. And I'm like, kind of think that's kind of cool, especially as an African-American woman. You know, with everything that black people have been through in this country, we're still expected to be so patriotic. Like, we ought to be so grateful that we're here and not other places. So she's saying, you know what, there's something better, there's someplace better for me. I'm like, right on, Tina.

MARTIN: Have any of you ever considered it yourselves?

DADE: Yeah, every year when I have to pay taxes.

MARTIN: Oh, really. I don't think you'll find the tax burden in Switzerland to your liking, which is one of the reasons - well, we can - Neil, you know, you and I can talk about six hours, right?


MARTIN: We could talk for a long time about tax policy.

MINKOFF: Long time.

MARTIN: Jimi, have you ever considered it?

IZRAEL: Yes, I've considered immigrating to Canada.

MARTIN: How come?

IZRAEL: But I - well, I don't know. I just felt like Canada was a little more friendly to creatives, generally. And my uncle's there, so...

DADE: Better crack prices also.

MINKOFF: And you can vote for mayor in Toronto.

IZRAEL: And I had some place to say. But I opted to, you know - I opted to stay, you know, here. You're welcome, America.


MINKOFF: We all thank you.

MARTIN: Joining, like, Michael J. Fox and however many Canadians are down here doing their thing.

DADE: That's right.

MARTIN: Speaking of, like, creatives out here. All right. OK, well, we would miss you. We would miss you.


MARTIN: I guess we'd have to visit via Skype or something.

IZRAEL: You say the sweetest things.

MARTIN: All right. Well, Jimi Izrael is a writer and adjunct professor of film and social media at Cuyahoga Community College. He was with us from NPR member station WCPN in Cleveland. Neil Minkoff is a former doctor, trained as a doctor, turned health care consultant. He's a contributor to the National Review. He joined us from WGBH in Boston. Corey Dade is a contributing editor for The Root. He was here in our Washington, D.C. studios, along with Paul Butler, law professor at Georgetown University. Thank you all so much.

BUTLER: Thank you.

DADE: Yes sir.

IZRAEL: Yep. Yep.

MARTIN: And remember, if you can't get enough Barbershop buzz on the radio, look for our Barbershop podcast. That's in the iTunes store or at NPR.org. That's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Let's talk more on Monday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.