AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And we pick up there with our Friday regulars, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution, and David Brooks with the New York Times.
DAVID BROOKS: Hello.
E.J. DIONNE: Good to be with you.
CORNISH: So as we just heard from Julie's piece, the reaction from states, mixed to say the least to the Obama administration's fix to grandfathering health insurance plans that don't meet the new standards at least for another year. During President Obama's speech this week, he said, referring to this issue of the cancellations and also about the struggling enrollment website, that he had two fumbles on a big game, but the game's not over.
For you, is this policy fix going to fix a political problem? Who wants to jump in first?
DIONNE: Well, I think it partly fixed the political problem, but not wholly. It fixed it in two senses. One is I have never seen President Obama look so penitent. I mean, he went at himself over and over again, you know, sometimes you guys beat me up and it's not justified, but it was in this case. He kept saying it's on me. And I think all that was designed to sort of heal the problem he has where the numbers on Americans trusting him are down.
That's always been something he could count on, even if people disapproved of him, they still trusted him. And because of the contradiction between his assurances that people would never lose their insurance and the fact that some have, he's had to make that better. In terms of politics, this was really a message to Democrats in Congress saying please don't abandon me. Please don't abandon the Affordable Care Act.
And it was a mixed result. Today, 39 Democrats voted in favor of the, quote, "Keep Your Health Plan Act." That's good news in one sense because there were rumors that would go up to 100. It's bad news because it's about double the usual defections from conservative Democrats.
CORNISH: David, I'm hearing about that House vote today. The House bill is different from what the administration is doing. But did the Obama action give political cover to those Democrats who were saying, look, we really got to do something. We're starting to get a little bit louder and a little bit louder each day.
BROOKS: Listen, they have a huge political incentive now to distance themselves from the Affordable Care Act. If you're in a marginal district, you've got to try to vote against this thing and that's what the 39 of them tried to do. I think we're still early in the game. The big challenges for Obamacare implementation are still to come and the two things that haven't worked are both bad news for the administration.
The first is politically, Obamacare has a bad aura about it so when the big challenges really do come, Democrats are going to be much less likely to stick with it than if they'd had a smooth launch. Secondly, the big substantive issue is there are a lot of losers here. Young healthy people are subsidizing everybody else. If this fix excuses some of them from being in the system, you already have a problem.
They're not going to be in the system. There's not going to be enough money to pay for the sick older people and then you've got these premium spikes. And that's the thing that could actually kill the whole bill.
DIONNE: I do agree with David that how the insurance market works is really important and that today's vote, the Democrats who went no went yes with the Republicans. It was more a guide to perceived vulnerability than to ideology. But in the end, I don't think Democrats have any choice but to stick with the Affordable Care Act.
If this thing fails, as Ron Brownstein suggested in the National Journal, this is a huge blow to liberalism because liberals say we can use the government to make things better. They've got to make this work. So in the end, even though a lot of Democrats are nervous, I think they're going to have to come back and try to make this thing work.
CORNISH: I want to move on, actually, because there was one question that popped up during this press conference, which was almost completely about healthcare and then there was a question about Iran. Obviously, last week's meetings to negotiate a temporary deal in Geneva that would have frozen Iran's uranium enrichment program were met with pretty much rejection from Congress in a way, right? I mean, they're just pushing for more sanctions. How do the congressional politics here help or hurt the negotiating position of the U.S. going forward?
BROOKS: Well, it makes it much tougher. And they sort of back up what's become the French position which is to be more skeptical of the talks. And there are two good reasons for that. The first is that if we - the administration sometimes seems so eager to put a nonproliferation deal, we end up winking at some of the human rights abuses of the regime.
The second, and this is the worry of Israelis and others, which is that once you start weakening the sanctions and there's Katie bar the door, it's hard to keep any sanction regimes in place and the pressure on Iran just diminishes and diminishes.
DIONNE: Although I think there's an irony here. First of all, in American politics, you don't lose much by being anti-Iran and so I think there's going to be some pressure from Congress. But this also - and I've talked to administration officials about this. This strengthens them vis-a-vis the Iranians because the administration, while it's saying to Congress please don't strengthen these sanctions now, let's see if we can make these talks work, the administration can always hold the threat that sanctions could get worse as it's trying to get Iran to make concessions.
The administration seems to have some confidence that they can get a pretty good deal out of Iran, but of course that'll also depend on how outsiders judge whether it is a pretty good deal.
CORNISH: Short time left, but I want to jump on something you wrote this week, E.J. You said that the president is furiously fending off winter of discontent stories, and it's not even winter yet.
CORNISH: It sounds like you've got bad forecasts for the rest of the agenda.
DIONNE: Well, it's been a bad couple of months for the president. I mean, you've really had each party taking two-by-fours to themselves. First you had the Republicans really dent their own popularity with the shutdown, and congressional approval is down to nine percent. It's even much lower than President Obama's. On the other hand...
CORNISH: I think every time we bring up congressional approval, it's like it's even lower than the last time.
DIONNE: Yes, we're going to be in negative numbers by Christmas.
DIONNE: But then Obama, who was kind of riding high even though he got hurt in this, saw his popularity take a big hit because of this self-inflicted wound on Obamacare. The interesting thing is how does he come out of this? I think he's got to talk more about immigration. He's got to talk more about fixing the economy. That's what he tried to do in Cleveland this week, got totally drowned out by Obamacare.
CORNISH: David, last word to you.
BROOKS: Second-term approval ratings, Reagan and Clinton look remarkably similar. They're riding high in this point in their second term. George W. Bush and Obama look very bad, also very similar, very similar. They're sinking. They both have administrative failures, which is Katrina and Obamacare. But I also think there's something in the country.
The country is just in a much more hostile mood to its leaders, much less likely to accept collective risk, which is why there's so much anger about Obamacare. People are - just less social trust, less social cohesion, more distrust of institutions, and therefore when you do mess up, and you're a world leader, the popularity hit you take is immense.
CORNISH: That's David Brooks with The New York Times, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution. Thank you both.
BROOKS: Thank you.
DIONNE: Good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.