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tv   Washington Week  PBS  August 15, 2009 5:00am-5:30am EDT

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pete: presidential rumor control in the health care debate. calling the shots in the battle against swine flu. hillary clinton's mission to africa. and what's next for afghanistan? i'm pete williams. sitting in for gwen ifill. tonight on "washington week." the president takes to the road to put out wildfires over health care reform. >> the way politics works sometimes is that people who want to keep things the way they are will try to scare the heck out of folks. pete: how fear about an end of life provision has become the viral talking point in the reform debate. the start of the school year also means flu season is just around the corner. >> younger individuals and pregnant women appear to be much more vulnerable to serious disease. pete: the government's plan to get ahead of the swine flu virus.
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hillary clinton spends 11 days in africa. but was it a lost in translation moment that overshadowed her mission? >> you want me to tell you what my husband thinks? my husband is not the secretary of state. i am. pete: questions of substance and standing for the secretary of state. and while u.s. troops draw down in iraq, the fighting intensifies in afghanistan. on the eve of presidential elections. >> they're obviously holding an election in adverse circumstances. pete: how the taliban is forcing changes in u.s. strategy. covering these stories this week, janet hook of the "los angeles times." michael duffy of "time" magazine. janine zacharia of bloomberg news. and james kitfield of national journal. >> celebrating 40 years of journalistic excellence, live from our nation's capital, this is "washington week with gwen
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ifill" produced in association with "national journal." corporate funding for washington week is provided by -- >> they shape our world. create new wonders and new conveniences. america's minerals. they're the stuff our dreams are made of. there's more information at >> corporate funding for "washington week" is provided by boeing. major funding for "washington week" is also provided by the annenberg foundation. the corporation for public broadcasting and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. once again, live from washington, sitting in for gwen ifill this week, pete williams of nbc news. pete: good evening. when members of congress head home for the summer, their meetings with constituents are seldom a hot ticket. they're typically quiet gatherings with perennial questions about cutting taxes
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and fixing potholes. but not this summer. it's been hard to tell the televised town hall meetings on health care from reruns of jerry springer. president obama has responded by pushing extra hard for what he says will be the largest reform effort ever for health care. with three town halls just this week in new hampshire, montana, and colorado. and especially controversial provision is something called end of life counseling. the rumors and the questions have been putting lawmakers on the defensive. >> the democrats tell us all the time that it's the right of every american to have health care. yet it seems this obama plan will systematically deny those rights to certain groups like the elderly. >> we should not have a government program that determines you're going to pull the plug on grandma. >> what it says is as a 74-year-old man, if you develop cancer, we're pretty much going to write you off. >> well, you're just not right.
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nobody 74 is going to be written off because they have cancer. that's a vicious, malicious untrue rumor. pete: so have questions like this derailed the administration's plan to sell health care, janet? >> well, they haven't derailed it. but they've certainly taken it -- the debate in a direction that nobody had expected. and it puts the obama administration and the democrats in congress on the defensive on topics that they were not really expecting to come up. these town hall meetings and the legion of attack ads that have been put up on tv and radio, they're all very shrill and partisan and singularly uninformative. and unfortunately, they bend -- that and internet traffic has been the vehicle for distortions and misleading claims and this end of life debate is the classic example. what could be more frightening to the elderly population, which are an important constituency in the health care
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system, and the political system, than finding out that they're going to pull the plug on you? pete: let's get clear on what it is. this would reimburse doctors if they give end of life counseling, would they have to give it? would patients have to receive it? >> right. that's the thing. is that it is completely voluntary. medicare reimburses doctors for doing lots of things. giving shots. doing x-rays. and now they're saying that they should be reimbursed for counseling the elderly every five years on what kind of arrangements, living wills or what kind of pain medication they want. and this has been turned into a medicare subsidized negotiation on how you're going to die. and sarah palin gave it a new dimension when she put on her blog that this amounted to death panels. pete: what is the public policy reason for doing this other than doctors say they do this already and want to be reimbursed, but why have this in the health care plan? >> you can say that -- and this may be also why people --
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critics are nervous about it. in the context of a cost cutting program, you know, a lot of money can be spent at the end of life, keeping life support on somebody who everyone knows is going to die. so you could say it's a prudent policy decision to make. pete: but the goal is to find out if people want this sort of -- for the end of their lives or not. >> the fear is by being counseled you're going to be compelled. >> we've seen obama talk a lot this week, is he trying to regain the momentum, has he had any luck or any signs they're back on message and have sort of steered the debate back to where they want it? >> well, it certainly is the case that he kind of jumped right into the debate this week in a way that he hadn't before. and he did seem a little bit taken aback by how much blowback there was on the bill. and it wasn't just on these marginal issues. there's been a big pushback on the question of how deeply involved the federal
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government's going to get. so he's out there on his town hall meetings. and i've got to say he -- they were more like campaign events than like a town meeting. and the questions were all rather friendly, not nearly as confrontational as the kinds of questions that we just saw senator specter getting. >> there are some indications this week that that provision that was so controversial on the advisory end of life advisory subsidies, will actually now fall out. which would suggest that the opponents, however ill-informed, misinformed, or treacherous they were, succeeded. >> that may be the case. senator chuck grassley, he is a very important person in the negotiations, because he's one of the few republicans who still is at the table and he indicated this week that he thought that wasn't going to be in the senate bill. now, maybe by the time they get around to writing the final bill it will have blown over. but it is the case sometimes that in search of a big policy change, a little -- one corner of it gets in the way.
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and sometimes members of congress just say it's not worth the trouble. >> what's the game plan here? are they going to continue with these mud wrestling thoun halls or try something -- town halls or try something else? >> they will try it through august. congress isn't in session and that's why they're back home and trying to persuade their constituents of flair various points of view on the health care. and what i don't know is whether the blowback against what obama's trying to do is so strong that they can do nothing but play defense. i mean, it's really remarkable to have the president of the united states have to put up a website that's a reality check or -- and say these are myths about what i'm trying to do. he has the bully pulpit and it's remarkable that the terms of debate were taken away from him. pete: the other big thing on this was there was controversial, the public option. are there any signs that the opponents now think they have the momentum and they're going to get that public option out? >> there's some compromises on the table that probably are the
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most promising route as always in congress. the liberals say any bill in a doesn't have a government option -- bill that doesn't have a government option won't pass. but knob thinks that the senate would accept -- but nobody thinks that the senate would accept that. pete: the government is preparing to launch one of the largest public health initiatives ever in response to an expected return of the swine flu. one big issue is what to do with the nation's 55 million children in public schools to make certain that the h1n1 virus can be contained and a major question is when a new vaccine will be ready and who should get it, what's the answer? >> that's a great question. and it is amazing that at the end of this robust debate about health care, they're about to have this massive behind-the-scenes campaign. the government is about to preemptively attack an epidemic and they can do it because we have the medicine. whether they can do it on a communications basis is another question. sometime over the next 60 to 90 days the government will try to vaccinate 160 million americans. there's a very definite pecking
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order here. people under 24. people who take care of babies under six months because they can't get a vaccine. pregnant women. health care and emergency workers. and one group who have chronic illness. about 160 million americans. that's the biggest immunization effort since polio. and they've got to do it fairly quickly. and it's trick country baugs the vaccine -- it's tricky because the vaccine won't be available when the flu season starts and one big test to get organized for and second, what to do when it comes to school? the most vulnerable people, most flus, people over 50, senior citizens, this really disproportionately impacts young people. people who don't know very much about hygiene and aren't very good at it. and where they hang out, especially in the fall, in the school, and last year, in the spring when this hit, the school districts shut down for a week, 10 days. government has said in the last week we don't want you to close but we want sick people to stay home. if they start coming to school we want you to separate them out and get them home. we may have to set up screening stations in your schools.
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and of course they're about to put out guidance next week in the next couple of days for colleges because those kids mostly don't go home. so this is a massive operation on the school level. and we don't know how that's going to work and the government said we might change our guidance at any time. and i guess that leads to the third test that they're facing. and i'll be quick. that is the educational informational challenge. it's one thing to have a nationwide vaccine 50 years ago when there were four sources of information and now there are asen sources of information as there are -- now there are as many sources of information as there are people and many bad and the challenge for government to putno carrierring pecking order. they're trying it out right
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now. several different companies have made it. they're working -- they're giving it to people to see how they react and whether there are adverse effects. they're hoping to have it available by the -- first they said mid to late october. that's again, almost two months after school starts. school starts this weekend in some places. but now they're thinking it might be the full course might be not until mid november. and here's another trick. it looks like it's not a one-shot deal but if you're in the protected group or the group that needs it, two shots which makes an even bigger hassle and might be a week or two apart. so again, whether the vaccine is going to make a difference even though we're going to the trouble of making it, we hope it does but another huge challenge. >> is this like y2k? are they exaggerating or a concrete reason to believe there will be an outbreak? >> because the government is trying to preemptively attack this they had no choice but to overreact. and because they know from what's happened both in the spring and what happened south of the equator during their fall flu season, this summer
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and last spring, we know that some groups, this can move quickly through some populations and it can be quite dangerous. we don't think they're overreacting and if you were the government having been through y2k and katrina, would you take a chance and underreact? probably not. >> any idea why it's attacking the susceptible populations like women who are pregnant and young children and some healthy young people as well? >> the good news is they know who it attacks most severely but don't know why. seniors are relatively better off than they would be with seasonal flu. probably because they've been through so many years of other bad stuff. and have some immunity. and young people who are most susceptible don't. pregnant women is an interesting case. this official from the c.d.c. told me today that pregnant women can get this and get very sick very quickly. from this flu bug. and so they move to the front of the line. that's a controversial issue. but they don't really know why. some groups are better off than others. >> can anyone get in vaccine that wants it or do you have to be in the approved category
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before you can get it? >> the government will let us know how they're going to make sure that the right people get it in the right arms at the right time. what is not known is how they're going to do it. pete: thank you. while all this talk about health was going on secretary of state hillary clinton was half a world away. visiting seven countries in africa. showing the obama administration's commitment to that continent. she went there to help encourage more democracy and promote energy development. but two unscripted moments seemed to define her trip. in the congo she was asked what her husband, the former president, thought of a deal the chinese had there. >> wait. you want me to tell you what my husband thinks? my husband is not the secretary of state. i am. no, you asked my opinion. i will tell you my opinion. i'm not going to be channeling my husband. pete: the other was a comment about election corruption in some south african countries. >> our democracy is still evolving.
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we had all kinds of problems in some of our past elections. as you might remember. in 2000, our presidential election came down to one state where the brother of the man running for president was the governor of the state. so we have our problems, too. pete: both statements dominated the coverage of her trip back here. overshadowing the reason she was there. you just returned, janine. did it feel that way for you over there? did these comments overshadow what she was up to? >> i think it just overshadowed the things here. but really over there, people were very focused on her trip there. i think that the commentators here got confused and thought it was the california primary instead of the congo and there was all these politics going on. but really, they stayed on message. and to give a little bit of the setting for that comment about bill clinton, we were -- it was 100 degrees in in a room and getting hostile questions from the audience. and more hostile than anywhere else on the trip. and the student asked her about a chinese loan and said what does mr. clinton think through
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the mouth of mrs. clinton? and she was offended by it and thought it was condescending and her feminism spoke out. but because bill clinton landed in north korea as we landed in kenya, and eclipsed us in the beginning that everybody seized on this that she's mad at bill. but that's all it was and it became this major frenzy here. >> the initial explanation was this was not the question that the translator mistranslated. was it the question? >> yes, it was the question. we don't know why he asked it but he said it twice. and she understood the question that way. at first the state department i think seeing what was happening on cable news here, tried to spin it that it was actually he meant -- it was mistranslated. the second explanation was he meant to say president obama. none of that was true. they said he apologized to her but i didn't see it. >> maybe the downside of having a celebrity for secretary of state, that there is all these sort of unrelated interests in what she has to say and do, but i'm wondering, did her
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celebrity and star power work for her and for u.s. policy as she went through africa? >> we're going to know the answer to that definitively only in a few months if we see any of the initiatives she laid on the table actually happen. but i can tell that you everywhere we went, they turned out numbers that i never saw before with secretary rice. it was really like a show. people waiting for hours to.their picture taken with her -- for hours to have their picture taken with her. the angolan minister fell in love with her. her just being her had an impact. it's a distraction back here on fox and msnbc and elsewhere but there she had real star power. >> a long trip. what was the strategic rationale between spending time in africa and so many other hotspots? >> you mentioned oil. is in a to counter growing chinese investment -- is that to counter growing chinese investment there? >> you see chinese development everywhere. they are doing deals where we'll build you a stadium, a road. you give us exclusive mining contracts. she didn't go that far but she
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was the first one to go to angola, the first secretary of state to do that. same with nigeria. she went -- the peg was a trade conference in kenya at the beginning. and she wanted to go to africa and she says look, i got powerful envoys like richard holbrook and george mitchell working in pakistan and israel full-time which enables me to go with my press on an 11-day trip to africa. certainly it's a new kind of diplomacy that we haven't seen before. >> based on what you saw in the trip, can you fill in more of the blanks on how she operates as secretary of state?
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>> but what we do know is he has been surprised at how bad things have gotten in afghanistan. along with all of his aides. they think things have degraded further than he anticipated. so i think what's happened here is he brought in a lot of outside the box thirst. people when they come back and leave government service, temporary government service to commission us to take part in this report, they're speaking freely to the press and we're getting from them the fact that more troops are needed and that's their recommendation to him. i don't think he's off message but i think the timing has gotten skewed here with this whole debate about health care and gates and let's not talk about troop levels yet. >> what's the crux of it here? why is the taliban getting stronger again? >> i think three main reasons. basically they have got a sanctuary in pakistan. we've said that for a long time but sanctuary allows them to regroup but go to school on our operations and how we operate. we've underresourced
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afghanistan in terms of money and troops from the very beginning and that's still the case. very underresourced in terms of troops. and one of the advisors told me that the amount of corruption in the afghan government is grievous malfeasance from petty shakedowns of afghan people on the street by police to really sort of diverting government funds at the top. and it's losing any chance the government has to win the populace to their side. pete: there has been public opinion polling in pakistan. what will it show for karzai's chances? >> he is above the second most popular candidate. 26% of 44%. so assuming he will win. again, he doesn't get 50%. there's going to be this runoff and people are worried that as you have seen in other elections in africa and other places, there could be violence, some of the candidates could say there was a rigged election. so i think the assumption is he will win. the question is will he get that 50%. pete: the election is next week? >> thursday. pete: that will do it for us
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tonight. i'm pete williams. gwen ifill will be back next week but before we go, she has a special message about next week's program. gwen: we want to hear from you. congress left town with more questions than answers about the future of health care reform. what do you want to know? send us your questions to and we'll tackle them in a special health care reporters roundtable next week. see you then. download our weekly podcast and take us with you. it's the washington week podcast at "washington week" online at >> "washington week" was produced by weta which is solely responsible for its content. corporate funding for washington week is provided by
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