08/09/2013 07:56 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Friday Talking Points -- PBS, Citizen Koch , and Obama's Press Conference

The big political news today, of course, was President Obama's press conference. While the subject matter largely revolved around the National Security Agency reforms Obama is belatedly proposing, I found the rest of the presser to be more interesting, personally -- mostly because the excerpt we're going to provide will in all likelihood be virtually ignored in most media reports. But we'll get to all that in the remainder of the column.

Sometimes, come Friday, I give in to the urge to just unleash a rant. Usually, this is provided at the end of the column, in lieu of the talking points. Today, we're switching things around a bit, and instead are leading off with a little mini-rant (mostly because it's so off-subject). So we'll get to Obama's comments in a bit, but first, my advice for anyone who donates regularly to the Public Broadcasting System (I've been meaning to rant on this for a while, but it's now pledge season once again, so it's definitely time to speak up).

If you haven't heard this story already and are a supporter of public television, I heartily encourage you to read up on what has been going on there. And then I also heartily encourage you to phone up your local PBS station during pledge-break hours and say to them something similar to the following:

"I'm calling you up because you are begging for donations once again -- seems like you do pledge drives every month, these days. I'm calling up today to explain why I will not be donating any money to your PBS station. You should write this down and provide it to the bigwigs at your station, in fact.

"I used to think PBS was worthy of donating to for the sole reason that you are one of the most-trusted media entities in America. Through thick and thin, I thought it was a bedrock tenet of PBS that you were independent and would not be influenced by commercials, advertisers, or anyone else who offered you money to change your editorial policies in any way. Sadly, I no longer think this.

"When I heard the story of how PBS greenlighted the documentary Citizen Koch -- only to pull out of the deal right after one of the Koch brothers reportedly threatened to stop a multimillion-dollar donation to one of PBS's flagship stations, I have to tell you, I was downright disgusted.

"To hear that PBS's editorial policies could be so crassly influenced by a big donor was disheartening and disillusioning, to say the least. Thankfully, these days, there is social media to spread this story, since I certainly didn't hear about it on any of your news shows. Also, thankfully, there are online ways to donate directly to the producers of this documentary, so that their work will not die after PBS cut off the funding for it due to pressure from a donor.

"Since you have shown that this is what motivates you these days -- pressure from donors -- I just had to call to let you know that while I might have otherwise considered donating some money to you, I will instead be donating to the financing for Citizen Koch. While my donation is a whole lot smaller than millions of dollars, there are many who feel exactly as I do. And we"re taking our money elsewhere, until you have regained our trust.

"So please make sure you write this down and pass it along to the PBS executives. I will not be donating one thin dime to your station until I see you have scheduled Citizen Koch to play on your station. Because you've shown that money talks at PBS, I'm hoping that when enough people call in and tell you exactly the same thing, you will see the error of your ways and return to being a truly independent source of information. So you can hold all the pledge drives you want, but my money will be going elsewhere until I see Citizen Koch aired on your station."


Moving on to the political news of the week, President Obama pretty much trumped all other news with today's afternoon press conference. Obama, like many second-term presidents, hasn't been giving as many of these pressers as he used to, of late. Even though it's been months since the last one, there was a clear focus today to both Obama's initial announcement and most of the questions from the press.

Obama began by stating that he's now going to get behind four reforms of how the federal government conducts surveillance. This is what most of the news leads have focused on as well, from the few we've yet seen. As we stated, though, we were much more interested in the other subjects brought up at the end.

We'll have plenty of time to hash over the N.S.A., surveillance, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, proposed reforms, and all the rest of it in the coming weeks. So forgive us if we largely ignore them today.

But when contemplating awards this week, we came to the conclusion that the most impressive person this week (if not a "Democrat" -- we've never heard party affiliation even discussed) is none other than Edward Snowden.

Now, love Snowden or hate him, the measure of the effectiveness of any leaker is what gets done after the leak. Does the media and the public yawn and ignore it? Is there a public outcry, but no political action? Or does the leaked information become so important that it not only spurs a public outcry but also leads to politicians actually reforming the problem?

By this measure, Snowden has been not just effective, but outstandingly effective. Within a few weeks (which is light speed in Washington), the House almost passed a bill scrapping the entire N.S.A. program and President Obama was forced not only to just give a press conference which centered around the problems Snowden exposed, but also to actually support several important reforms to the program, some of which have already been introduced as Senate bills. That is not only effective, that is impressive.

Of course, we could give a Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week to the senators behind the reform bills, but we already did that last week. We imagine that Senators Richard Blumenthal, Tom Udall, and Ron Wyden were as surprised as the rest of us at how quickly the White House jumped on their bandwagon, in fact. But, like we said, we already gave them all MIDOTW awards last week.

We could give the award to President Obama for belatedly getting on the reform bandwagon, but if we did, we'd have to also give him the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week as well, for his strong insistence during the press conference that all of this would have happened anyway, since he had suggested some more-timid reviews and reforms in a speech a few months ago. We simply don't find that believable. Does anyone really think this all would have played out in anywhere near as effective a fashion if it hadn't been for Snowden? Obama even admitted this directly, today:

And there's no doubt that Mr. Snowden's leaks triggered a much more rapid and passionate response than would have been the case if I had simply appointed this review board to go through -- and I'd sat down with Congress and we had worked this thing through -- it would have been less exciting and it would not have generated as much press -- I actually think we would have gotten to the same place, and we would have done so without putting at risk our national security and some very vital ways that we are able to get intelligence that we need to secure the country.

This is disingenuous not only because he's right about the fact that it wouldn't have been exciting, but also because if some commission had looked at it and issued some report at some point far in the future, this report likely would have been a one-day story in the press, and would have been absolutely ignored by Congress. We simply would not have "gotten to the same place." True reform of both the N.S.A.'s programs as well as the fundamental ways the F.I.S.C. operates are now politically possible. That just would not have been true if nobody now knew the name Edward Snowden.

So we're going to forego both the MIDOTW and the MDDOTW awards this week, and instead award a custom-designed Most Impressive And Effective Leaker award to none other than Edward Snowden.

As we said -- love him or hate him, call him "patriot" or "traitor" -- it is now absolutely impossible to argue that his leaks weren't effective, meaningful, and will actually cause the federal government to have a national conversation with its citizens about what it feels it is legally able to do. And that, to us, is impressive indeed.

[We have no contact information for Edward Snowden, of course.]


Volume 268 (8/9/13)

Today, we're going to pre-empt our usual amateurish attempts to provide Democrats with talking points they can use. Instead, we're going to provide the portion of Obama's press conference which other news organizations may ignore completely (what with all the N.S.A. news and all).

We're providing the following extended excerpt from the transcript of the press conference for a reason. While the N.S.A. dominated the press conference (and will likely dominate the coverage), Barack Obama, toward the end, responded to a question by a Fox News reporter (and a followup by a different reporter) on the subject of "Obamacare." This is going to be the number one issue when Congress returns in September, especially since the hotheads in the Republican Party are threatening to shut down the federal government in a final, ineffective tantrum over the law's implementation. Obama also had a good answer on immigration reform at the very end, but since immigration reform doesn't have a deadline built into it, the first big fracas Congress will face is going to be the last stand of the anti-Obamacare absolutists. Meaning that the most important (or most immediately relevant) part of the press conference politically was actually the excerpt below.

Obama's response is the best full-throated defense of the law I think I've ever heard, which is why it's worth reading in full. He not only laid out what the law actually is, he "framed" the issue better than I've ever heard it presented before by just about anyone. Again, this is going to be the big overarching battle when Congress returns, so the entire answer was a shot across the bow of the Republicans in Congress. Obama is presenting his position before the fight even begins. And he did so extraordinarily well, which could bode well for what happens in September.

The first part of the question is provided. There was a second question from the Fox guy, but it was nothing more than the obligatory Benghazi question you'd expect, so we've edited both the question and Obama's response out. This excerpt was taken from the official White House transcript of the press conference. The emphasis (bold text) in the transcript is our own, to highlight the best "talking points" which came out of Obama's answer. Democrats should learn these well and start repeating them often, to lay the groundwork for the upcoming fight in Congress.

Q: Okay, thank you. I want to ask you about two important dates that are coming up. October 1st, you've got to implement your signature health care law. You recently decided on your own to delay a key part of that. And I wonder, if you pick and choose what parts of the law to implement, couldn't your successor down the road pick and choose whether they'll implement your law and keep it in place?

[Benghazi question and response cut]

PRESIDENT OBAMA: With respect to health care, I didn't simply choose to delay this on my own. This was in consultation with businesses all across the country, many of whom are supportive of the Affordable Care Act, but -- and many of whom, by the way, are already providing health insurance to their employees but were concerned about the operational details of changing their HR operations if they've got a lot of employees, which could be costly for them, and them suggesting that there may be easier ways to do this.

Now what's true, Ed, is that in a normal political environment, it would have been easier for me to simply call up the Speaker and say: "You know what, this is a tweak that doesn't go to the essence of the law -- it has to do with, for example, are we able to simplify the attestation of employers as to whether they're already providing health insurance or not -- it looks like there may be some better ways to do this; let's make a technical change to the law." That would be the normal thing that I would prefer to do.

But we're not in a normal atmosphere around here when it comes to, quote-unquote, Obamacare. We did have the executive authority to do so, and we did so. But this doesn't go to the core of implementation. Let me tell you what is the core of implementation that's already taken place. As we speak, right now, for the 85 percent of Americans who already have health insurance, they are benefiting from being able to keep their kid on their plan if their kid is 26 or younger. That's benefiting millions of young people around the country, which is why lack of insurance among young people has actually gone down. That's in large part attributable to the steps that we've taken.

You've got millions of people who've received rebates, because part of the Affordable Care Act was to say that if an insurance company isn't spending 80 percent of your premium on your health care, you get some money back. And, lo and behold, people have been getting their money back. It means that folks who've been bumping up with lifetime limits on their insurance, that it leaves them vulnerable. That doesn't exist.

Seniors have been getting discounts on their prescription drugs. That's happening right now. Free preventive care -- mammograms, contraception. That's happening right now. I met a young man today on a bill-signing I was doing with the student loan bill who came up to me and said "Thank you" -- he couldn't have been more than 25, 26 years old -- "Thank you; I have cancer; thanks to the Affordable Care Act, working with the California program, I was able to get health care, and I'm now in remission." And so right now people are already benefiting.

Now, what happens on October 1st, in 53 days, is for the remaining 15 percent of the population that doesn't have health insurance, they're going to be able to go on a website or call up a call center and sign up for affordable quality health insurance at a significantly cheaper rate than what they can get right now on the individual market. And if, even with lower premiums, they still can't afford it, we're going to be able to provide them with a tax credit to help them buy it. And between October 1st into March, there will be an open enrollment period in which millions of Americans for the first time are going to be able to get affordable health care.

Now, I think the really interesting question is why it is that my friends in the other party have made the idea of preventing these people from getting health care their holy grail, their number-one priority. The one unifying principle in the Republican Party at the moment is making sure that 30 million people don't have health care and, presumably, repealing all those benefits I just mentioned -- kids staying on their parents' plan; seniors getting discounts on their prescription drugs; I guess a return to lifetime limits on insurance; people with pre-existing conditions continuing to be blocked from being able to get health insurance.

That's hard to understand as an agenda that is going to strengthen our middle class. At least they used to say: "Well, we're going to replace it with something better." There's not even a pretense now that they're going to replace it with something better.

The notion is simply that those 30 million people, or the 150 million who are benefiting from the other aspects of Affordable Care, will be better off without it. That's their assertion -- not backed by fact, not backed by any evidence. It's just become an ideological fixation.

Well, I'll tell you what, they're wrong about that. There is no doubt that in implementing the Affordable Care Act, a program of this significance, there are going to be some glitches. No doubt about it. There are going to be things where we say: "You know what? We should have thought of that earlier. Or this would work a little bit better. Or this needs an adjustment." That was true of Social Security. That was true of Medicare. That was true of the Children's Health Insurance Program. That was true of the prescription drug program, Part D, that was rolled out by a Republican president and supported by Republicans who are still in the House of Representatives. That's true, by the way, of a car company rolling out a new car. It's true of Apple rolling out the new iPad.

So you will be able to, whenever you want during the course of the next six months and probably the next year, find occasions where you say: "Ah-ha! You know what? That could have been done a little bit better. Or that thing -- they're kind of making an administrative change; that's not how it was originally thought this thing was going to work." Yes, exactly. Because our goal is to actually deliver high-quality, affordable health care for people and to reform the system so costs start going down and people start getting a better bang for the buck. And I make no apologies for that.

And let me just make one last point about this. The idea that you would shut down the government unless you prevent 30 million people from getting health care is a bad idea. What you should be thinking about is: how can we advance and improve ways for middle class families to have some security so that if they work hard they can get ahead and their kids can get ahead.

Jessica Yellin.

Q: Thank you, Mr. President. And following on what you just said, Republicans in the House might give you that choice soon to either allow the government to shut down, or see Obamacare defunded. Would you choose to let the government shut down to ensure that Obamacare remains funded?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I'm not going to engage in hypotheticals. I can tell you that the American people would have difficulty understanding why we would weaken our economy, shut down our government, shut down vital services, have people who are not getting paid who then can't go to restaurants or shop for clothes, or all the other things that we're doing here, because Republicans have determined that they don't want to see these folks get health care.

Again, they used to say they had a replacement. That never actually arrived, right? I mean, I've been hearing about this whole replacement thing for two years. Now I just don't hear about it, because basically they don't have an agenda to provide health insurance to people at affordable rates. And the idea that you would shut down the government at a time when the recovery is getting some traction; where we're growing, although not as fast as we need to; where the housing market is recovering, although not as fast as we would like; that we would precipitate another crisis here in Washington that no economist thinks is a good idea -- I'm assuming that they will not take path. I have confidence that common sense, in the end, will prevail.


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