President Obama spoke with NPR in the Oval Office on Monday, as a visiting group of young people in suits got a tour of the Rose Garden outside the windows. The most striking part of our encounter in this moment of crisis was how familiar the atmosphere seemed.
Some of what the president said he also said during the debt ceiling crisis of 2011. We've become desensitized to this kind of showdown; the president is accustomed to it. The Congress is accustomed it. The public seems less engaged than in previous rounds, and yet the consequences are as high as ever: a potential nightmare for federal employees and the millions who rely on federal services, with a potential global calamity looming beyond that.
If there was any difference between the president on this occasion and my four previous talks with him, it was in the firmness of some of his statements. Would he refuse to negotiate with Congress over the debt ceiling, even if the United States surpassed the debt limit and began defaulting on its obligations? "Absolutely I will not negotiate," he said, explaining that "one faction, of one party, controlling one chamber in Congress," was trying to "blackmail" him.
On the more immediate problem of a bill to open the federal government, were any of the various House bills to avert a shutdown coming closer to anything he could sign? "No," the president said. He did say he would call congressional leaders, but when I asked what he would offer them, he replied, "I shouldn't have to offer anything."
House Republicans have been just as adamant that they would not extend the operations for the government, even for a few weeks, unless the president agreed to do significant damage to the Affordable Care Act, the central portion of which, not coincidentally, goes into effect Tuesday — the same day as the start of the government's fiscal year. It is the president's signature domestic achievement, and he is determined to see it come into force.
The president's critics fear that once in force, Obamacare will never be revoked; the subsidies to pay for health insurance will prove too appealing. On this, if nothing else, Obama said he and his critics agree.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
We sat down with President Obama yesterday in a White House that was preparing for a partial government shutdown.
GREENE: On the other side of Washington, the House and Senate were sending a resolution to fund the government back-and-forth without agreeing on the terms. White House staffers were already adjusting the procedure for visitors in case of a cutback in staff.
INSKEEP: Sitting in the Oval Office, the president said he was about to call Republican leaders. But as we heard yesterday on NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, he did not think there was much to say.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Steve, when you say, what can I offer, I shouldn't have to offer anything.
INSKEEP: The president said it's Congress' job to continue programs Congress previously approved. He said he would not make concessions just to get the government through the next 45 days.
Now, around the same time he said this, House Speaker John Boehner was talking at the Capitol. Boehner said he would not allow a vote on any funding measure unless it did include some concession that took a bite out of Obamacare.
This morning, much of the government has shut down, exactly what all sides said they did not want. And the central part of Obamacare is going into effect. As we spoke with the president, it was not clear how the standoff would end.
People who follow this closely, Mr. President, will know that you've negotiated in the past with Speaker Boehner, and those negotiations have often fallen apart, that your vice president has negotiated with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and sometimes those negotiations have succeeded. But there don't appear to be negotiations going on now. Do you believe there is anyone in Congress in a position of authority you can deal with who could deliver an agreement to you?
OBAMA: Well, look. I like Speaker Boehner. I like Mitch McConnell. I think they are, you know, in challenging positions, because right now, they have been unwilling to say no to the most extreme parts of their caucus. And at the point where they're willing to say no to the most extreme parts of their caucus, I think that there are a whole bunch of Republicans - both in the Senate and the House - who recognize this is a bad strategy. They've said so publicly. I'm in conversations with those senators on a regular basis, and some of those House members, and they recognize that the greatest country on Earth should not be doing business this way.
And I think if John Boehner stood up and said: We're going to make sure that the government stays open. We're going to make sure that basic government functions are being carried out. We're going to make sure that America pays its bills on time, like we always have, throughout our history, but I'm still going to take principled stands on a whole range of issues where I differ with the president, I think the vast majority of American people and the majority of Republicans would say that's the kind of leadership we expect.
INSKEEP: Would he lose his job?
OBAMA: I don't think he would. But it requires some willingness on his part to put the long-term interests of the country ahead of short-term political interests. Ironically, over time, I actually think that would be good politics.
Look, I want a successful Republican Party in the sense of one that is interested in governing. There's not going to be a Democratic president here permanently. You know, Congress is going to go back and forth over the next five, 10, 20 years. And what we want is both parties to be able to have principled disagreements, to have very tough fights, but to make sure that the underlying stability of the country is maintained and that we're not demonizing the other side and we're not locking ourselves into ideological positions that we can't move off of, we're not boxing ourselves in. And unfortunately, that's what we've seen. That's the pattern that we've seen over the last several years.
INSKEEP: Let me mention, Mr. President, that one reason this is such an emotional moment is that people on both sides of the debate over the Affordable Care Act seem to believe that once the individual mandate takes effect and people begin receiving subsidies, the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, stays forever. It cannot be removed, because there will be political support for it. Do you believe that?
OBAMA: Well, I do, but that's a pretty strange argument. Keep in mind, if you're a Republican - and we've heard some Republicans make this argument. Some of those who are leading the charge on this make this argument. Essentially, what they're saying is once this is fully implemented and millions of people who currently don't have health care have health care at reasonable prices, and protections are in place for consumers across the board, that it will be sufficiently successful and popular that people won't want to repeal it. Well, that's a strange argument. So the notion is we got to stop it before people like it too much. That's not an argument that I think most people buy.
INSKEEP: Well, apparently the argument is sometimes people come to like things that the government can't afford anymore.
OBAMA: Well, this is the argument that was made with respect to Social Security. This is the argument that was made to Medicare. It turns out, actually, people liked it, and we could afford it. And unlike the prescription drug plan that was passed by Republicans - which now is very popular with seniors, although at the time that it was passed, was actually less popular than the Affordable Care Act, according to the polls - we paid for the Affordable Care Act. It doesn't add to the deficit. In fact, repealing it would increase the deficit. And so...
INSKEEP: If the assumptions in current law held. Yeah.
OBAMA: Well, but the assumptions so far not only have held, they've actually exceeded expectations. Health care costs have gone up slower since we passed the Affordable Care Act. There were great predictions coming from Republicans that health care costs would go up even faster. That hasn't happened. There were predictions that the marketplaces that we're setting up - essentially, the group plans where people buy health insurance - would not offer a good deal to consumers. And so far, the bids have come in from insurance companies, and lo and behold, they've actually come under the estimates that the government had so far. So, the truth is that every prediction about how bad the Affordable Care Act would be for individual consumers out there has not proven to be true.
INSKEEP: That's President Obama, speaking yesterday at the White House. Now, Medicare, the program for seniors the president mentioned, has actually turned out to be hard work to afford. The cost of all health care has been rising for years. And one major question about the Affordable Care Act is whether it will meet its goal of containing those costs over time. Despite the government shutdown, the main parts of the law take effect today. Health exchanges are supposed to open, websites and other locations across the country where people without insurance can shop for private plans. I asked the president if he was prepared for significant glitches as the exchanges opened. And his answer was absolutely.
OBAMA: In the first week, first month, first three months, I would suspect that there will be glitches. This is 50 states, a lot of people signing up for something, and there are going to be problems. And I guarantee you there will be problems, because we've got precedent. When Massachusetts - just one state - set this up, it took quite a long time. It took several months before everything was smoothed out. Of course, the same was true with Medicare and Social Security and every other social program that we've set up - the Children's Health Insurance Program. But what we're confident about is that people will be able to take a look and find out whether this is something that is going to be good for their families.
INSKEEP: That's President Obama yesterday afternoon at the White House. And we will hear more of our interview elsewhere in the program.
GREENE: But for now, let's talk about the biggest glitch of all: the partial shutdown of the government. Yesterday afternoon, as the last hours ticked away, Republican Congressman Paul Ryan insisted that his side was willing to negotiate.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
REPRESENTATIVE PAUL RYAN: We've been compromising all along in this process. The president and the Senate had chosen not to even talk, let alone compromise. So, I think this shows that we're flexible and compromising.
GREENE: The House did offer several versions of the short-term extension. The Senate rejected all of them, because they included provisions targeting Obamacare. Republicans were not united. Senator John McCain opposes the Affordable Care Act, but considered a shutdown unwise.
SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: We're not going to repeal Obamacare, OK? That's it. We may do this for a day. We may do it for a week. We may do it for a month. It's going to end up the same way.
GREENE: And this morning, lawmakers resume the debate, as the government shuts down. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.