Eugene Robinson Live

Nov 12, 2013

Chat with Post columnist Eugene Robinson about his latest columns and political news.

Hi, everyone. Welcome to our weekly discussion. No preliminaries today; this morning's column argues that if you step back and look at how the country's doing these days, the sky isn't actually falling. If I'm wrong, duck! Let's get started.

I agree with the thrust of your column -- we're in better times than we currently appreciate. If you think back prior to the Oct 1 ACA launch, it looked like Obama was truly hitting his stride, only to be tripped up by the IT failure and then the issue with policy cancellations. These aren't small issues, but they're fixable. The real issue is that too many people are still being left behind, the stock market and economic growth is benefiting mostly those at the top, and the structural challenges aren't being addressed. The big impediment is the House, which won't pursue common sense measures because they don't want to hand Obama any victories. How does this change? What's the best way for Democrats to retake the House? My thinking is that they should focus on fixes to the ACA (helping those squeezed by the individual market changes), raising the minimum wage (76% support), passing immigration reform (assuming it doesn't move this year), and a "rebuild America" initiative (infrastructure). Thoughts?

I think your ideas are good ones. The main thing Democrats have to do, at this is point, is not be Republicans. If they can at least try to move forward on fronts like immigration and infrastructure, the contrast will be stark. And not in the GOP's favor.

I am re-submitting a question regarding a recent column, because your Live Discussion was cancelled that day. My question/assertion is this: President Obama has given in or accepted the national security complex as the compromise he must make to retain support, particularly for his domestic programs, in the same way that the Democrats accepted segregation to retain support of Southern Democrats for the New Deal and other domestic programs. I'm sure it's an analogy that President Obama would find offensive, but then, many people find his acquiescence to/acceptance of the unfettered spying as offensive. Am I wrong? If so, why do you think the President supports the vast national security complex?

Gee, I guess I find the comparison pretty offensive, too. I don't see the natsec stuff as analogous to segregation, but then I lived through segregation and for me it's not a metaphor. That said, I have been critical of President Obama for the NSA spying and the secret FISA rulings and all the rest, and I'll continue to be critical. I think the idea of perfect omniscience that provides perfect security is seductive -- but ultimately an illusion, a fraud and a violation of privacy rights on a massive scale.

How long do you think President Obama has to turn around the affordable care glitches? Anyone who has dealt with a cable company, telephone company, or any other large organization online knows that customer service software sucks. No one seems to be able to set up a customer web page that works reliably, or a support team that can actually fix the problems once they occur. That said, most systems work well enough to allow the wheels of commerce to roll, allbeit more like Fred Flintsone's jalopy than Montgomery Burns'. This rollout seems to be in a class by itself, though, and given the stakes and the public harm that would result should afforable care fail, I have to think that the grace period can be measured in weeks rather than months. What are your views?

As I've written, he has three years and change to get the thing fixed, if you want to be technical about it. Unless opponents get veto-proof majorities in both houses of Congress, the law is going to be around as long as President Obama is around. But I disagree with your assessment of whether a customer-friendly website can be developed. Clearly it can, as any number of e-commerce websites demonstrate every day.

I'm a loyal Democrat, but I am really aggracated at the incompetence of the admininistration when it comes to Obamacare. It's not surprising to anyone that the website would have a few bugs, but to have it be untested and not workable is both incompetent and plays right into the hands of the Republicans. And you can't have the President out making unequivocal statements that aren't true. I realize that the Republican opposition to everything has been ridiculous, but these are self-inflicted wounds. If the administration doesn't up its game immediately, we're going to have a Republican-controlled Congress and Ted Cruz as our next President, and you and I will have to move to Canada. Can you say anything to make me feel better??? They give the sense of not being ready for prime time, despite best intentions.

There is zero evidence that public frustration with the ACA website -- which is completely understandable -- has translated into support for GOP candidates, including Ted Cruz. So I'm not shopping for a house in Toronto just yet.

When you feel the need to preface a statement with "...and this isn't racist," it's probably best to toss that statement aside. As ANYONE heard that preface being followed by something that wasn't actually racist? "This isn't racist, but I noticed my check engine light was on this morning..."

Never in history has someone begun with "This isn't racist, but..." and said something that wasn't racist. If you have to start with a disclaimer, you might want to just keep quiet.

A few weeks back you published our (my wife's and my) observation that we had stopped wanting to help people who only want free stuff (Obamaphones, free birth control, dubious disability, etc.) because those people simply don't care about the debt they are leaving to our children (hard workers, college-educated but no loans thanks to our both working and planning, etc.). Your response was to ask about our Social Security and Medicare receipts. "Just asking," you said. Well, here's just telling. First, we would be willing to forego some of our earned benefits if we could be certain those would be used to strengthen the programs for our kids -- and not be raided for other purposes. We have yet to see any concrete proposal from Obama to do that. Second, we resent your somehow equating our return of some of the monies we and our employers were compelled to pay over forty years of working (let's call it our money, shall we) with the clamoring for free stuff by so many, stuff paid for with other people's money, either taxed or borrowed. We who are simply looking to get back some of what we had to pay into a system are not the same as those who just want Obama to give them stuff, although we are not surprised you seem to view us as such.

I mentioned Social Security and Medicare because that's where the bulk of federal spending goes. And about that being "our money"? If you had saved and invested the money taken out of your paychecks over the years that went into Social Security and Medicare, I suppose you might have enough to fund your retirement -- providing that you never got sick. One serious illness, perish the thought, would wipe out any realistic savings. End-of-life care, which all of us will need, is vastly expensive. You will almost surely get more out of the system than you put in. But I'm not accusing you of wanting President Obama to give you free stuff. This is the way social insurance works.

I appreciate your column today and agree with many of the points raised. I do think, however, that the current malaise indicated by polling is related to deeper, less contemporaneous concerns than the points raised in your column. The structural hit taken by our economy during the great recession was tremendous and resulted in a huge loss of wealth and prosperity which could take a decade to fully recover from but the toll the recession took on people's confidence in our system may linger even longer. The fundamental notion that the market is sometimes flawed and the free market system was the cause of the catastrophe led many to reconsider their long held beliefs in our system. The result has been the rise of the tea party along with other populist elements in our political system. Combining the failure of the website and other failures of government in general reinforces the notion that our system is broken and this leads to the current attitude, in my opinion.

This was, indeed, an extraordinary recession that saw huge amounts of wealth vanish and that shook confidence in the system. Some of our poliltical leaders have compounded this effect by acting like clowns. That said, I think it's unwise to declare "fundamental" shifts in society based on a few years' worth of turbulent politics. Even if the recovery does not pick up pace, things will look different -- and probably much more promising -- ten years from now or even five years from now.

Its now become extremely clear how the ACA pays for itself. Its not really by forcing the young invincbles to sign up, but by forcing healthy small business owners to drop their current plans and buy new expensive ones. With the high cost of living in places like DC and other urban areas, its easy to be squarely in the middle class (if not more paycheck to paycheck) and not qualify for subsidies. The cost per month is often 100s more a month and the coverage many people are getting is less. Its not just the website thats flawed. The underlying principle of the ACA (putting everyone in a group pool) may be good for the poorest and those with preconditions, but it is clearly penalizing the middle class and those who work in small business to pull this off.

What the ACA is really doing is making the whole system fairer. All of those "healthy small business owners" are going to get old. Some of them, sadly, are going to get really sick. When their less-than-bare-bones insurance policies fail to provide the coverage they need, ultimately everybody else is going to pay for their care. 

Online systems work fine for simple transactions like ordering a book or buying an airline ticket, but many (most?) systems fail at the complex stuff, like correcting a billing error or sorting through options for a complex product like health care. Difficulties with the rollout were therefore to be expected, and I expect the public's expectations were pretty low based on past experience. I expect and hope that these problems are solvable, but I also think that the Affordable Care rollout was so problematic that the administration has very little time to right itself. BTW, regarding another post, if you consider moving to Canada, you might want to examine other options than Toronto, at least in the short term.

If I were ever to relocate, as a columnist I'd look for a place with a healthy abundance of news. A crack-smoking mayor provides a lot of material.

Let's help our retirees who are sick of people asking for "free stuff." Who's asking for "free stuff?" Really, who? Two of the items mentioned are not things people asked for, but are investments in a better future. "Obamaphones" are a right-wing mythological entity. It's based on a policy that began under Bush and is designed (with successful origins) to help equip people to get jobs and keep pace with the world today. Making birth control more broadly available can help reduce abortion and the cost (that we all share) of people having children when they're not ready to support them. In other words, these are programs that reduce government dependence. Disability is no different from Social Security, although I'm sure there's abuse in it. At the heart of that abuse, however, is a wide swath of the country that has not kept pace with the economy, where hope is non-existent and where nearly 40 years of trimming investments in future growth of our people have left them with no safety net and no alternatives. The abuse of SSI is a warning to us that crippled public policy and failure to invest in tomorrow comes back to bite us!

Thanks for the reality check.

You said in response to my question: There is zero evidence that public frustration with the ACA website -- which is completely understandable -- has translated into support for GOP candidates, including Ted Cruz. So I'm not shopping for a house in Toronto just yet. I hope that you are right. But as a Virginia resident, I think the all-too-close governor's race in VA might be an example of Obamacare hurting Democratic candidates and helping Republicans. I can't think of another explanation for that clown Cuccinelli coming as close as he did, notwithstanding the polls suggesting that McAuliffe's margin would be substantially greater. I also think the President's words (if you're happy with your plan you can keep it") are probably a greater long-term problem than the website. Thanks for your response.

The Virginia race should have been Cuccinelli's to lose -- and he lost it. I never believed that McAuliffe would win by a landslide; he was hardly a perfect candidate. The fact that he won at the height of Obamacare Madness suggests to me that all is not lost for Democrats.

My insurance company sent me new id cards twice in the last year. For no reason at all. Assigned me (a 50 year old woman) to a pediatrician for a primary care provider. Assigned my daughter to a doctor we had never heard of . When I called and asked why they did this, I basically got a "I dunno" over the phone. Happened twice. If the government had done something like this, the knee jerk reaction would have been - "government is incompetent and can't do anything right." The left can't demonize corporations, though because it wants the political cash as much as the right. So the narrative that gets embedded in the public mind is skewed.

And your post reminds me of a question I've been meaning to ask: Who are these people who think the existing health insurance system was so great? Have they ever actually dealt with an insurance company? Tried to figure out why a legitimate claim was being denied? Had to appeal to get approval for a necessary medication or procedure? 

Hi Eugene, I am a contractor for the federal government and was furloughed in October. I am angry at the obamacare rollout because it feeds fuel to people who think anything the government does is bad. If the website woes continue, do you think I'm more likely to be furloughed again in January/February?

I don't think there is great enthusiasm, even among House Republicans, for another government shutdown.

Does the writer realize he is getting back many, many times over what he paid in?

Apparently not.

And now we see the wisdom of framing health care access as a moral issue, something the President did not sufficient do (IMO). Our prior system was a form of apartheid. Nothing less than it. We allowed insurers to create ghettos and a sense of dislocation. What should have been a universal conservative belief in the necessity of health insurance as an act of responsibility has been eroded so much that so-called "conservatives" now make the case to young people that they should forego insurance. The ditching of tens of millions of sick and poor was an abomination. No less. Now, those healthy, middle and upper class people who had access to what seemed like great deals are being hit out of nowhere with "rate shock." Instead of having set the stage for the end of American Apartheid (which is what the ACA attempts to do), we have people who are angry and don't really understand why. A case hasn't been made to them that they were benefiting from an immoral decision. That all along, they were avoiding the true cost of health insurance, the cost that those of us on employer plans have been paying all along. Now, they're playing catch up. I can understand the anger. But we misserved them by not being up-front with them in how they benefited from an immoral system.

I seem to recall writing a column a couple of years ago, arguing that this was indeed primarily a moral issue and should be framed as such. The White House chose to go a different route.

Why does the left continually hate (and by association discourage investment in) the stock market. Over the last 70 years its been a great creator of wealth and retirement saving. It could provide help for many middle class investors. It continually rises at a rate generally far past that of the economy. Instead of blaming the stock market, why not blame the hedge funds and the manipulation of the market through large institutional trades. I am middle class investor (with income under 100K) and the stock market helps me grow a nestegg and develop savingss that would otherwise be impossible to achieve.

I don't know what you're talking about, because the progressive critique of the market has been that it disadvantages small investors like you and favors the big institutional behemoths, including the hedge funds. By the way, the market's value has more than doubled under President Obama, which makes him pretty incompetent at being a socialist. 


That's all for today, folks. Time's up. See you again next week!

In This Chat
Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is an Associate Editor and twice-weekly columnist for The Washington Post. His column appears on Tuesdays and Fridays. In a 25-year career at The Post, Robinson has been city hall reporter, city editor, foreign correspondent in Buenos Aires and London, foreign editor, and assistant managing editor in charge of the paper's award-winning Style section. In 2005, he started writing a column for the Op-Ed page. He is the author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race" (1999) and "Last Dance in Havana" (2004). Robinson is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists and has received numerous journalism awards.
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