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Should The President Have Apologized For Obamacare Issues?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We are continuing our conversation about the State of the Union address with voices from around the country. Still with us are Christopher Ave, political editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Rachel Stassen-Berger, state political reporter at the Star Tribune in Minnesota and Michael Smolens, government editor at U-T San Diego, formerly known as the San Diego Union-Tribune. Michael, before the break, we were talking about the various narratives, I guess is the word I want to use, that each party the president - led by the president on the one hand and the Republican respondent on the other were trying to make about women and their commitment to women. And I wondered how each side's remarks struck you.

MICHAEL SMOLENS: Well, it comes off on both sides as a plea to, you know, equality and getting rid of inequality. I think that there's just obviously the philosophical differences of how you go about that. On minimum wage, it's a little more simple where, you know, the government can do that. It's a difficult thing politically. Any notion of policies that are going to somehow bring women up to where men are in the workplace in terms of salary equality, I don't know how you do that. But it is a political appeal, and I think the Republican stance is that let's let the marketplace work.

I think Rachel touched on that. And while both these elements are, I think, generally popular by most people, when you get down to the business level, San Diego has - well, we all have a lot of small businesses. And I'm not talking about the aspect of women equality in salaries, but the minimum waste thing is a huge thing for small businesses. And while everybody wants to raise folks up, there is a bottom line and some legitimately say that an increase or a larger increase than they can handle will stymie their ability to hire workers and so forth. So I think that's where it comes down to.

MARTIN: Well, and that does tie into the gender piece because as the president, you know, pointed out and as a number of other people have pointed out, that women are concentrated in these low-wage jobs. We have a number of other issues that we want to get to. So, Michael, do you mind if I ask you about immigration? The president touched on that last night. You're right there on the border. How do you think his remarks - did his remarks resonate with you, and how are they being received in where you are today?

SMOLENS: Well, I don't think they were being received any differently than they have in the past. And frankly, he kind of, you know, brushed past that, as he did a number of other things that he had talked about in the past that haven't gotten anywhere. There is a universal desire for some sort of immigration overhaul. There are very different views as to how to do that that out here reflect, I think, the partisan divide there as well. But a number of things struck me that I mentioned earlier that - of the things that - California seems to be ahead of his agenda. Governor Brown and the Democrats and the legislature are passing immigration laws that they can do legally.

We just had a hearing yesterday before the president's speech. The Department of Motor Vehicles was starting to work on rules implementing driver's licenses for unauthorized immigrants. These are the kinds of things the state can do just saying, hey, Washington isn't getting the job done. So they're moving forward on those things and some other rights for illegal immigrants. Are these universally endorsed? No. It's still a very controversial thing. But I think it's broadly gained more more acceptance out in California.

MARTIN: You know, one of the things that's interesting about - that all of you have pointed out is that there are ways in which the places where you - the state governments are already ahead of the debate that's going on in Washington. And it's just interesting - it's interesting that, you know, the historian Douglas Brinkley called this president the firewall president. They said that his job is really not - his administration won't really be seen as one that advanced that many issues. But what it did was kind of create kind of a progressive firewall against moving backwards in certain areas. The one area, though, that I think that he is very clear that he's not willing to retreat is in the health care issue.

And in the time we have left, I did want to hear from you all on that. This is where the Republican responses were really focused. For example, Mike Lee of Utah gave a Tea Party response. That's different, of course, as we mentioned, from the official Republican response, which was given by Cathy McMorris Rodgers. But I just want to play a short clip from his response. And he focuses specifically on Obamacare. Here it is.


SENATOR MIKE LEE: We know the best way to repeal Obamacare is to deliver better solutions. We can't just return to the old system. Health care policy used to give too much power to insurance companies. Obamacare now gives far too much power to government. We know that real reform will put health care dollars and decisions where they belong - in the hands of patients and families and their doctors and nurses.

MARTIN: And the president's point coming earlier in the evening was essentially, get over it. You know, this is the law. You know, get over it. Live with it. Rachel, you know, Minnesota has its own health exchange. What do you think about this whole back and forth about whether people should just get over it, or should they still keep trying to change the law?

RACHEL STASSEN-BERGER: That's right, and the debate continues. There are certainly Republicans here who say that it's time to get rid of the health exchange and overhaul it completely. And frankly, one of the things - the president only touched on this, but here in Minnesota, like in the federal exchange, there have been problems, unexpected problems with how it works and how it doesn't work that actually have just added to some of that opposition and given the opponents more fuel to add to the fire of their opposition to the health care law.

I didn't hear in the president's speech anything that would change anyone's mind on the health care law. You know, certainly he can say that, you know, it's time to get over it. But Republicans see something very clear, and, you know, they bounced back after the shutdown because the health care law was not being implemented the way it should have been. So they're not going to let that go as an issue, no matter what the president says.

MARTIN: Christopher, what about you?

CHRISTOPHER AVE: Yeah, I agree. I didn't hear much there beyond, hey, you know, this is how it is, and we need to move ahead. It's interesting. This is where we get to this sort of balancing act that I think he tried to pull off, and I am not convinced that he did. On the one hand, look, Congress, we don't need you. I'm going ahead with my executive actions. Look, Congress, forget about trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act. It's law. Deal with it. On the other hand, immigration reform, he cannot do himself. He needs Congress. Other issues that - there are plenty of other issues that he needs Congress. So is he trying to work with Congress, or is he trying to defy Congress? I'm not sure the answer to that question. I don't think he made it clear. And to me, this is where the speech sort of left me with more questions than answers.

MARTIN: Michael, what about you?

SMOLENS: Well, Covered California, which is our version of what Obamacare is being run through, has touted that it's been more successful than what we've been seeing nationwide. Now the bar is pretty low nationwide given all the dysfunction we know has happened. So I think that they're moving forward, and Republicans would like to get rid of it. They're in such a minority. That's not going to happen. But I think that the president didn't really address the fact that, OK, it is problematic and start talking about how to fix it or to fix it even in general.

He just kind of pointed to Republicans, well, you guys come up with ideas. We're moving ahead. And I thought that kind of gave short shrift to something that's been a central issue with the public over the past months. You know, on the flipside, most people in California and across the nation have health insurance, aren't going through these exchanges. So there's a little bit of a disconnect. There's a huge outcry about how it's working, but frankly, most people aren't affected by it.

MARTIN: We haven't had - unfortunately, we haven't had - we only have a minute left, and we really don't have time to talk about foreign policy, which is obviously a very significant issue. So, Michael, if I could just get one brief word from you on this, particularly because you are in a place where there are a lot of people currently serving. How did you feel about the president's remarks on those issues, particularly the drawdown in Afghanistan and showing appreciation for the troops and the men and women serving and their families who are supporting them?

SMOLENS: Well, everybody loves to be appreciative of the troops. We all do, and I think the public in general wants to wind down, wants the wars to end. There's been very mixed feelings here, particularly in what's going on in Iraq and fears that the same thing will happen in Afghanistan. We've been seeing the insurgents and al-Qaida come back, particularly in places like Fallujah. And just to put it in a local perspective, Fallujah, for Marines that fought there, it's like their Iwo Jima.

And to see that basically falling after all the work, the death, the limbs they lost there, to see that work really being undone or potentially undone with al-Qaida back there is very heartbreaking for them and the region. So it's a very emotional issue. And it sort of seemed like that was the whole wind-down discussion was an afterthought, along with a couple other things that the president talked about.

MARTIN: Well, it's not an afterthought to us. I'm just sorry that, you know, we're out of time. We thank you all so much for your insights. Michael Smolens is the government editor at U-T San Diego, formerly the San Diego Union-Tribune. He joined us from their newsroom. Christopher Ave is political editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, with us from St. Louis Public Radio. Rachel Stassen-Berger is a state political reporter at the Star Tribune, with us from Minneapolis. Thank you all so much for joining us today. We appreciate it.

AVE: Thank you, Michel.

STASSEN-BERGER: Thank you so much.

SMOLENS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.