Barack Obama photo

Interview with Chuck Todd of NBC News

November 07, 2013

TODD: Thank you, Mr. President.

THE PRESIDENT: Great to see you, Chuck.

TODD: Nice to see you. I will with health care. It''s probably the most quoted thing or requoted thing you have said in your presidency, "If you like your health care plan, you can keep it." You said it a lot during the run-up. At this point, though, it''s obviously something — a promise that has not been able to be kept. Just today the Denver Post reported 250,000 people in Colorado are seeing health insurance policies cancelled. Some of those people like those policies, and they can''t keep them. What happened?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, I meant what I said. And we worked hard to try to make sure that we implemented it properly. But obviously, we didn''t do enough — a good enough job, and I regret that.

We''re talking about 5 percent of the population who are in what''s called the individual market. They''re out there buying health insurance on their own. A lot of these plans are subpar plans. And we put in a clause in the law that said, if you had one of those plans, even if it was subpar, when the law was passed, you could keep it. But there''s enough churn in the market that folks since then have bought subpar plans. And now that may be all they can afford. So even though it only affects a small amount of the population, you know, it means a lot to them, obviously, when they get — this letter cancelled.

And — you know, I am deeply concerned about it. And I''ve assigned my team to see what we can do to close some of the holes and gaps in the law — because, you know, my intention is to lift up and make sure the insurance that people buy is effective, that it''s actually going to deliver what they think they''re purchasing because what we know is, before the law was passed, a lot of these plans, people thought they had insurance coverage, and then they''d find out that they had huge out-of-pocket expenses or women were being charged more than men.

If you had pre-existing conditions, you just couldn''t get it at all. And we are proud of the consumer protections we put into place.

On the other hand, we also want to make sure that nobody is put in a position where their plans have been canceled; they can''t afford a better plan, even though they''d like to have a better plan. And so we''re going to have to work hard to make sure that those folks are, you know, taken care of.

TODD: Do you feel like you owe these folks an apology for misleading them —


TODD: — even if you didn''t intentionally do it? But at this point, they feel misled. And you''ve seen the anger that''s out there.

THE PRESIDENT: You know, I regret very much that what we intended to do, which is to make sure that everybody is moving into better plans because they want them, as opposed to because they''re forced into it — that, you know, we weren''t as clear as we needed to be in terms of the changes that were taking place. And I want to do everything we can to make sure that people are finding themselves in a good position — a better position than they were before this law happened.

Keep in mind that most of the folks who are going to — who got these cancellation letters, they''ll be able to get better care at the same cost or cheaper in these new marketplaces, because they''ll have more choice, they''ll have more competition, they''re part of a bigger pool. Insurance companies are going to be hungry for their business.

So the majority of folks will end up being better off. Of course, because the website''s not working right, they don''t necessarily know it, right? But even though it''s a small percentage of folks who may be disadvantaged, you know, it means a lot to them and it''s scary to them. And I am sorry that they, you know, are finding themselves in this situation, based on assurances they got from me. We''ve got to work hard to make sure that they know we hear them and that we''re going do everything we can to deal with folks who find themselves in a tough position as a consequence of this.

TODD: You''ve been getting some tough criticism on this quote: Clarence Page, your hometown newspaper, Chicago Tribune. This is not a — not a columnist who likes to throw bombs inside this White House, usually pretty supportive of what you said. He characterized this as a political lie. He called it a sort of — the sort of rosy promise politicians sometimes make with such passion and confidence that they actually even themselves that it is true. Is that the position you found? Did politics play a role and you felt as if, as the Republicans were throwing stuff at the law, you''re trying to pass it, you''re trying to do this, that you shorthanded this?

THE PRESIDENT: No, I — I think we, in good faith, have been trying to take on a health care system that has been broken for a very long time. And what we''ve been trying to do is to change it in the least disruptive way possible. I mean, keep in mind that there were folks on the left who would have preferred a single payer plan. That would have been a lot more disruptive. There were folks on the right who said let''s just get rid of, you know, employer deductions for health care and give people a — a tax credit and they can go buy their own health care in their own market . That would have been more disruptive.

We tried to find a proven model, we''ve seen it work in Massachusetts, that would be as — as undisruptive as possible and, in good faith, tried to write the law in such a way that people could keep their care, although we really believe that ultimately they''re going to be better off when they''re buying health care through the marketplaces. They can access tax credits and they''re benefiting from more choice and competition. But obviously, we didn''t do a good enough job in terms of how we crafted the law. And you know, that''s something that I regret. That''s something that we''re going do everything we can to get fixed.

In the meantime —

TODD: By the way, that sounds like you''re supportive of this legislation, the various things that are out there —

THE PRESIDENT: Well, we''re — we''re looking at a — a range of options. But the one thing I want to emphasize though, Chuck, is everybody is acting as if the existing market was working.

And the fact of the matter is that a whole lot of people who are in this individual market, who were buying health care on their own because they were not getting it through their employer — they might be happy with it this year, and then suddenly next year the cost got jacked up by 15, 20 percent.

The average increase on premiums in this individual market for somebody who kept their health care for a while — the average increase was double digits. If they actually got sick and used the insurance, they might find the next year their premiums had gone up, or the insurers might have dropped them altogether because now they had a pre-existing condition. Women were being charged as much as double compared to men.

So this is a market that wasn''t working, and a whole lot of people were dissatisfied. And what we''ve done is to increase the consumer protections that are in place for those families and those folks. We''ve said you can''t drop people when they get sick and need it most. We''ve said that you can''t, you know, have lifetime limits so that suddenly people think they''ve gotten insurance; the next thing they know, they''ve got $30,000, $40,000 out-of-pocket expenses. And over the long term, that is the right thing to do.

But in this transition, you know, there are going to be folks who get a cancelation letter. Especially when a website''s not working, they''re looking at saying, well, what am I going to do now? And you know, we have to make sure that they are not feeling as if they''ve been betrayed by an effort that is designed to help them.

TODD: Do you feel like, considering how much this has been — it''s late night, it''s all sorts of things — that — do you understand if people are going to be skeptical of the next promise you make, of the next — or are you concerned that people are going to be wondering, jeez, what''s the fine print that he''s not telling me?

Do you get that people might be a little more skeptical? Forget the partisans here in Washington. Just average Americans.

THE PRESIDENT: You know, I''ll tell you, Chuck. I — I think that — I''ve now been in national public life for seven, eight years. I''ve been president for almost five. And I think for the most part, people know that I speak my mind and I tell folks what I think, and I''ve been very clear about what I''m trying to do. And I think most people know that — even if they disagree with me on certain issues — that I''m every day working hard to try to make life a little bit better for middle-class families who are — and folks who are trying to get in the middle-class, who are doing the right thing and being responsible.

I think what most people, I hope, also recognize is that when you try to do something big, like make our health care system better, that there are going to be problems along the way, even if ultimately what you''re doing is going to make a whole lot of people better off.

And I hope that people will look at the end product and they''re going to be able to look back and say, you know what? We now have protections that we didn''t have before. We''ve got more choice and competition. I didn''t have health insurance; I now have it. I had bad health insurance; I now have good health insurance. The website''s actually working. I''m getting —

TODD: Well, I want to get to the website.

THE PRESIDENT: I''m getting — you know, I''m getting —

TODD: Right.

THE PRESIDENT: — you know, my kid on my insurance plan even though he''s got asthma or some other pre-existing condition.

So ultimately I think I''ll be judged on whether this thing is better for people overall. And in the meantime, even if it''s a small percentage of people — I mean, we''re talking about 5 percent of the population —

TODD: Which is millions?

THE PRESIDENT: — but — but that''s a significant number of people.

TODD: Yeah.

THE PRESIDENT: Even though a whole lot of them are going to be better off, there''s going to be a segment who, you know, I''ve ultimately got to make sure that, you know, I''m speaking to their needs and their concerns.

And, you know, I take that very seriously, because I want everybody out there to know that, you know, my entire intention here is to make sure that people have the security of affordable health care.

TODD: You have 21 days till November 30th.


TODD: Is this website going to be running smoothly enough — if it''s not, at that point, do you sit there and say, OK, let''s extend the enrollment period, let''s delay the mandate? Do all of those plan Bs start coming into focus if November 30th isn''t hit?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, let me just say generally — and I don''t think I''m saying anything that people don''t know and I haven''t said before — I am deeply frustrated about how this website has not worked over the first couple of weeks, and, you know, I take responsibility of that, my team takes responsibility of that, and we are working every single day, 24/7, to improve it. And it''s better now than it was last week, and it''s certainly a lot better than it was on October 1st.

I am confident that it will be even better by November 30th and that the majority of people are going to be able to get on there, they''re going to able to enroll, they''re going to be able to apply, and they''re going to get a good deal — a better deal than they''ve got right now when it comes to buying health insurance.

Now, that — you know, having said that — given that I''ve been burned already with a website — well, more importantly, the American people have been burned by a website that has been dysfunctional, what we''ve also been doing is creating a whole other set of tracks, making sure that people can apply by phone effectively, making sure that people can apply in-person effectively — so what I''m confident about is that anybody who wants to buy health insurance through the marketplace, they are going to be able to buy it. And —

TODD: So no delays? You have no plans, or you might — [inaudible] —

THE PRESIDENT: Well, keep in mind — keep in mind that the open enrollment period — the period during which you can buy health insurance — is available all the way until March 31st, and we''re only five weeks into it.

So we''ve got a whole bunch of time not only to get the website fixed, to work out all the kinks, to make sure that everybody has the information that they need. And what we''ll do is continue to assess. If there are roadblocks for people, we''re going to clear out those roadblocks. We are going to make sure that they can access —

TODD: So you''re open to whatever it takes?

THE PRESIDENT: Whatever it takes for people to be able to get what is good-quality health insurance at cheaper prices or better insurance for the same price as bad insurance that they''ve got right now. We''re going to make sure that they have access to that market.

TODD: Still have full confidence in Kathleen Sebelius?

THE PRESIDENT: You know, I think Kathleen Sebelius, under tremendously difficult circumstances under the last 4 1/2 years, has done a great job in setting up the insurance markets so that there is a good product out there for people to get. You know, Kathleen Sebelius doesn''t write code. You know, she wasn''t our IT person. I think she''d be the first to admit that if we had to do it all over again that there would have been a whole lot more questions that were asked in terms of how this thing is working. But my priority right now is to get it fixed. And you know, ultimately, the buck —

TODD: She''s still the right person to do it?

THE PRESIDENT: Ultimately, the buck stops with me. You know, I''m the president. This is my team. If it''s not working, it''s my job to get it fixed.

TODD: I want to talk about a larger question here. We''ve discussed the website issue, but there seems to be this growing perception — and some of it is via press reports; some of it''s your staff — that you''re not always on top of some things, or this idea that you didn''t know certain things. So for instance, we talked about the website; did the warnings get to your desk or not? NSA — did you — did you really not know we were tapping Angela Merkel''s phone until Edward Snowden leaked it?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, look, these are two different issues. First of all, I can guarantee you that I''ve been more deeply involved in our intelligence operations on a whole set of a whole set of areas where there are real threats against us than just about any president — or let me put it this way, as much as any president.

When I am presented intelligence, particularly if it pertains to allies like Germany, I''m not poking and probing about where we get certain information.

TODD: You didn''t know this — you didn''t know this until after you learned it?

THE PRESIDENT: The — if we''re talking about al-Qaida, if we''re talking about, you know, other states that pose a threat to the United States, then not only am I interested in the information but also how we obtained it, because that''s very relevant. There''s no doubt when it comes to the NSA generally that over the last, you know, 30, 40, 50 years we have tried to extend our intelligence capabilities all around the world. That''s what every intelligence agency does. What''s changed is technology. What''s changed is capacity.

We''re just so much better than anybody else at this. And technology has given us so much more reach than in the past —

TODD: So your job''s to — [inaudible] — restrain?

OPERATOR: — that now we''ve got to — we''ve got to adapt to the architecture of what we do to our capacity. In — in some ways, the technology and the budgets and the capacity have outstripped the constraints. And we''ve got to rebuild those in the same way that we''re having to do on a whole series of capacities — military, you know, what we do in terms of, you know, our drone operations.

So — so that''s a whole big piece of business. But this idea that somehow every president is, you know, looking at the raw intelligence and figuring out what sources those are, that''s just not the case. You know, I think that my previous reputation was that I was this policy wonk that was digging into stuff all the time.

TODD: [inaudible] — we have to change every six months — [chuckles] —

THE PRESIDENT: And — and — and — was — was immersed in the details. I think that stereotype is probably a little more true than the latest one. But listen, when you''ve got the — a — a health care rollout that is as important to the country and to me as this is, and it doesn''t work like a charm, that''s my fault. That''s something that I''ve got to — I''ve got to do some examination of how that happened. And rather than push down blame on a whole bunch of people underneath me — you know, the easiest thing to do is to, you know, fire a whole bunch of folks and say, you know — that, you know, they should have done this, they should have done that.

My job right now is to make sure that with the assets that we have, we get it done, we get it fixed. And, you know, there are going to be some lessons learned. I''ll — I''ll give you one example — very quickly.

TODD: All right, because I''m getting the wrap sign. I want to sneak in two more —

THE PRESIDENT: Don''t worry.


THE PRESIDENT: Don''t worry, I''ll give you two other questions.

TODD: All good. Thank you, sir. All right.

THE PRESIDENT: You know, one of the lessons learned from this whole process on the website is that probably the biggest gap between the private sector and the federal government is when it comes to IT — how we precure — procure it, how we purchase it. This has been true on a whole range of projects.

TODD: And you know what your supporters say? You had a great campaign website.

THE PRESIDENT: I know. [chuckles]

TODD: How did you — how did you not be able to do this?

THE PRESIDENT: Right. Well, the reason is, is that when it comes to my campaign, I''m not constrained by a bunch of federal procurement rules, right? And how we write specifications and — and how the — the whole thing gets built out.

So part of what I''m gonna be looking at is, how do we across the board, across the federal government, leap into the 21st century? Because when it comes to medical records for veterans, it''s still done in paper.

Medicaid is still largely done on paper. When we buy IT services, generally it is so bureaucratic and so cumbersome that a whole bunch of it doesn''t work, or it ends up being way over cost.

And you know, in some ways, I should have anticipated that just because this was important and I was saying this was my top priority and I was meeting with folks once a month telling them, make sure this works, understanding that you had some structural problems there — you know, that''s on me. That''s something that I''ve got to refocus on. And I actually think that once we get this particular website fixed, there are going to be some lessons learned that we can apply to the federal government generally.

TODD: All right. Let me take advantage of those two more questions. High-level negotiations on easing sanctions against Iran start tomorrow, essentially this — or they''ve been going on, but there are some more talks tomorrow. Are you so sure you''re going to be able to trust the Iranians on some sort of temporary deal? Or how is it that you''re going to figure out if you trust them or not? What''s your measurement?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, our job is not to trust the Iranians. Our job is to put in place mechanisms where we can verify what they''re doing and not doing when it comes to their nuclear program. and the negotiations taking place are not about easing sanctions. The negotiations taking place are about how Iran begins to meet its international obligations and provides assurances not just to us but to the entire world that they are not —

TODD: So no sanctions get changed until they do something?

THE PRESIDENT: — that they are not developing nuclear weapons, that their nuclear energy program is peaceful. And frankly, because of actions in the past, the world doesn''t trust them on that. That''s why we''re able to construct these sanctions that have squeezed them very hard. Our job now is to test how serious they are about resolving this conflict or this dispute through peaceful means, through diplomacy.

And there is a possibility of a phased agreement in which the first phase would be us, you know, halting any advances on their nuclear program, rolling some potential back, and putting in place a way where we can provide them some very modest relief, but keeping the sanctions architecture in place, keeping the core sanctions in place, so that if it turned out, during the course of the six months when we''re trying to resolve some of these bigger issues, that they''re backing out of the deal, they''re not following through on it or they''re not willing to go forward and finish the job of giving us assurances that they''re not developing a nuclear weapon, we can crank that dial back up.

So we don''t have to trust them. What we have to do is to make sure that there is a good deal in place from the perspective of us verifying what they''re doing and that they''re actually moving in the right direction.

We can test it. We don''t have to dismantle sanctions to do it. If, in fact, that proves to be a possibility, then it''s greatly preferable to us ratcheting up that conflict higher and higher, which ultimately might lead to some sort of confrontation.

And I''ve said that I won''t take any options off the table, including military options, to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. But the best way to assure ourselves that Iran''s not getting a nuclear weapon is if we''ve got a verifiable means that they have decided themselves and are dismantling that program and international organizations can see what they''re doing and we can see what they''re doing.

TODD: Last question. Did you really not know that your campaign was researching this idea of swapping Joe Biden for Hillary Clinton?

THE PRESIDENT: You know, again, Chuck , the — the problem that we''ve got — and this goes back to the earlier question you asked — you know, I am in charge of 2 million people in the federal government, and that was true, by the way, even when I was running for president. So people do all kinds of stuff. Some of it they clear with me. Sometimes they''re trying to figure something out, particularly on the political side, and I''m not somebody who delves into polling and all that data.

Here''s the one thing I can say for certain: that if they had asked me, I would have said there is no way that I''m not running again with Joe Biden, because I genuinely believe that he has been one of THE best vice presidents in our history. He also happens to be a friend. He also happens to be one of my most important advisers on domestic and foreign policy. I like him. When my back''s up against the wall, he has my back. And —

TODD: Must have been upset, then, when this leaked out.

THE PRESIDENT: You know, I''ve now been in this town long enough to know that, you know, folks like to seem important by getting their version of events in the press or books or what have you, and you know, that''s just kind of part of the atmosphere that you live in.

TODD: Did you and the vice president talk?

THE PRESIDENT: Absolutely. And — and I — what I told him — and he knows and he believes me — is that I would not — I would not be here if it weren''t for the support that I''ve had from Joe Biden. He — he is a personal friend and adviser. It''s one of the best decisions that I''ve ever made, was selecting him as vice president. I couldn''t be prouder of the job that he''s done.

TODD: All right. Thank you, sir.


TODD: Thanks for your time.

THE PRESIDENT: Appreciate it.

Barack Obama, Interview with Chuck Todd of NBC News Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

Simple Search of Our Archives