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Consumer Advocate Joan Claybrook and Former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson Respond to State of the Union

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President Obama began his second State of the Union address by paying tribute to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona but did not address the issue of gun control. He spoke about the need for clean energy but did not mention the word “climate” once in his address. He talked about the economy but never mentioned foreclosures. We get response on Obama’s the State of the Union speech with longtime consumer advocate Joan Claybrook and the former mayor of Salt Lake City, Rocky Anderson, who is now director of High Road for Human Rights. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from Park City, Utah, and we’re joined by two guests. Joan Claybrook is a longtime consumer advocate, and she’s former president of Public Citizen. Rocky Anderson is also with us. He’s the former mayor of Salt Lake City and the founder and director of High Road for Human Rights.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Rocky Anderson, your overall response to President Obama’s State of the Union address?

ROCKY ANDERSON: Well, I listened to every word very carefully, and he has a great way of presenting himself, but there was so much missing and so many major disconnects. We’re at a time in our country where we need to define who we are, where we’re headed, what we have become. He didn’t mention human rights at a time when he has assassination lists for the first time in our nation’s history, that include U.S. citizens. No due process — we don’t just have indefinite detention anymore; we just go out, put their name on a list, and kill them. The invocation of state secrets, it’s absolutely obliterated any notion of checks and balances. Our courts have been removed from that equation, by and large, when it comes to torture, when it comes to warrantless wiretapping by our government. No discussion about that, of course. And we’re seeing, really, an institutionalization by this president of some of the worst abuses and what we, a lot of us, thought were just aberrations during the Bush years.

But also, the disconnect between saying that we’re at a “Sputnik moment,” we’re going to make all these great investments and build our economy, and then, what’s he building the economy on? He says it’s based on tax cuts. He sounded like Ronald Reagan. It sounded like trickle-down economics. And how do you freeze domestic annual spending and at the same time make these tremendous investments that are needed in our infrastructure and doing what’s required to get people back to work? He didn’t mention the middle class, the huge disparity between the very wealthy — there hasn’t been a greater disparity in this country in wealth and income since the 1920s. The top one percent have more net wealth than the bottom 90 percent in this country. These are the basics; these are the fundamentals. And it was all ignored. And it really seems that these two parties, bought and paid for by the same interests, by and large, are not providing the kinds of solutions or addressing the fundamentals that the American people are most interested in, that impact the American people the most.

And then, of course, I heard the word “purpose” when he was talking about Afghanistan. And I thought, finally we’re going to hear an explication by the President of the United States about why we’re there. And then it wasn’t there at all. He talked — in one sentence, it was basically just an aside about how we’re seeking to control the Taliban to stop al-Qaeda, ignoring, it seems, the fact that al-Qaeda has become the cellular network around the world, driven in large part, probably in greatest part, by the fact that the United States has invaded and occupied these Muslim countries and continues to kill innocent Muslim civilians.

AMY GOODMAN: Joan Claybrook, you’re a leading consumer advocate. You’re the president emerita of Public Citizen. You’re here in Park City at the Sundance Film Festival — actually, we played a clip of a movie yesterday called Hot Coffee, where you talked about legislation that limits people’s ability to access the courts. But first, overall, your response to what President Obama had to say last night?

JOAN CLAYBROOK: Well, first of all, I think that this was his first campaign speech of 2012, and he was attempting to preempt the Republicans from going after some of the things that he’s advocated. And the thing that — but the thing that really bothered me the most was that he’s going to cut domestic spending for programs that are essential for Americans. And I look at his new framework of being a business-friendly administration and say to myself, have they earned this? Have the Wall Street guys who robbed and plundered America, have they earned a seat at the table from this president? Have the guys who harmed homeowners and sent all these poor families into foreclosure, have they earned a seat at the table in a, quote, “business-friendly” administration? Not to me.

I also look at the whole issue of regulation. He has issued an edict that says that every government agency ought cut some regulations. Now, we’re not talking about some obscure thing. We’re talking about the environment, global warming, health, safety, pharmaceutical issues, auto safety, truck safety — all these issues that matter every day to Americans. And what that sends is a message. It sends a message to the civil servants who sweat to try and get these issues dealt with and to protect the American public that their president isn’t going to support them if they get into a controversial issue. And every regulation, almost, is controversial, because somebody doesn’t want it, particularly Big Business. And it sends a message to the business interests that they can go with impunity and oppose these regulatory programs, and they know that the President is probably going to clamp down on the people who are issuing the rules. And these rules matter. They really matter, when you have, for example, a very controversial one pending is hours of service for truck drivers. And it kills 5,000 people a year and injures, you know, almost 100,000 people a year. Just think of the consequences for American families with just that one rule. And then it sends a message to Congress, and particularly Congressman Issa of California, who is the new head of the Oversight Committee, who wants to go after the regulatory program, who went to the business interests and said, “What do you want to kill?” So, I see that the President is not really addressing the issues that matter to American people.

AMY GOODMAN: [Darrell] Issa, believed to be, I think, the wealthiest member of Congress.

JOAN CLAYBROOK: Yes, right, right.

AMY GOODMAN: “Step away from the car” is his line. I think it’s in his voice.

JOAN CLAYBROOK: Right, right.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s where he got his wealth —

JOAN CLAYBROOK: That’s right. Right.

AMY GOODMAN: — from the — what was the — the system for protecting cars, the car alarm system.

JOAN CLAYBROOK: Right, right.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn for a minute to something else President Obama talked about, and it’s about limiting what they call frivolous lawsuits. This is President Obama in his State of the Union address.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This means further reducing healthcare costs, including programs like Medicare and Medicaid, which are the single biggest contributor to our long-term deficit. The health insurance law we passed last year will slow these rising costs, which is part of the reason that nonpartisan economists have said that repealing the healthcare law would add a quarter-of-a-trillion dollars to our deficit. Still, I’m willing to look at other ideas to bring down costs, including one that Republicans suggested last year: medical malpractice reform to rein in frivolous lawsuits.

AMY GOODMAN: That was President Obama talking about “medical malpractice reform to rein in frivolous lawsuits.” Your response, Joan Claybrook?

JOAN CLAYBROOK: My response is that I am outraged to hear this. First of all, they’re not frivolous lawsuits in the medical malpractice area, because the lawyers who take these cases don’t get paid unless they win. So they’re not going to take frivolous lawsuits. That’s the first thing. Secondly, medical malpractice kills between 40,000 and 100,000 people a year. Five percent of the doctors cause 55 percent of the medical malpractice in this country. The medical system does not discipline themselves. And so, the only way that you can have any kind of redress against repeat offender doctors is to have the opportunity for people to sue and to make sure that these doctors are eventually disciplined. The harm is horrific.

And what he wants to do is to put a cap on damages, so that the President is deciding the value that these poor people who are injured should get, and the individuals are then limited, under such arbitrary caps, caps on the amount of money they can recover, they’re limited to that amount. And I met a family that was in this Hot Coffee movie that had awarded — the jury awarded them for their baby who was born with brain damage. They were awarded almost $6 million. The cap on damages got them $125 million. So who pays the difference?

AMY GOODMAN: One-point-two-five.

JOAN CLAYBROOK: Oh, $1.25 million, sorry. And so, who gets the difference — who pays the difference? It’s the state, the taxpayers. They have to pick up the care. And this family have no capacity to make sure their child is taken care of when they die. And it’s a 24/7 job for the mother to take care of a brain-damaged child. And she gets no compensation whatsoever. And the doctor walks away scot-free.

AMY GOODMAN: And the insurance industry wins?

JOAN CLAYBROOK: And the insurance industry, you know, who should be paying for this, charges high fees to the doctors that don’t pay the benefits.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to Dr. Atul Gawande. He is well known, a staff writer for The New Yorker, a doctor in Boston. We asked him about the issue of healthcare overhaul. In the State of the Union address, President Obama defended his healthcare overhaul and invited Republicans to help him move forward with essential fixes to the law.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Now, I have heard rumors that a few of you still have concerns about our new healthcare law. So let me be the first to say that anything can be improved. If you have ideas about how to improve this law by making care better or more affordable, I am eager to work with you. We can start right now by correcting a flaw in the legislation that has placed an unnecessary bookkeeping burden on small businesses.

What I’m not willing to do — what I’m not willing to do is go back to the days when insurance companies could deny someone coverage because of a preexisting condition. […]

As we speak, this law is making prescription drugs cheaper for seniors and giving uninsured students a chance to stay on their patients’ — parents’ coverage.

So I say to this chamber tonight, instead of re-fighting the battles of the last two years, let’s fix what needs fixing, and let’s move forward.

AMY GOODMAN: That was President Obama in his State of the Union address. A few weeks ago, I spoke to Dr. Atul Gawande, the surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston who’s a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine, and I asked him to assess President Obama and his whole approach to healthcare reform and to talk about how President Lyndon Johnson passed Medicare legislation 40 years ago.

AMY GOODMAN: What was the clincher that secured Medicare, which they do seem to be trying to unravel right now, even now, 40 years later?

DR. ATUL GAWANDE: Presidential leadership. I told about the president sending inspectors into the South and confronting the hospitals that were — basically a stare-down that occurred. But with the physicians, he was more conciliatory.

He had this amazing moment where the president of the American Medical Association came to the White House to explain that the AMA was going to vote on potentially boycotting Medicare as a whole. And the president sat down with the leaders, and they came to the Oval Office. And so, he sat down, and almost — they were about to start talking, and he stood up. And when the president stands up, you stand up. And so, they all stood up, and then he sat down. And then they sat. They were about to talk again, and then he stood up again, and he scratched his belly, and they waited, and then he sat down again. And then he did it a third time, and suddenly it was clear who was in control of this meeting.

And before they could even start talking, he said, “You know what I’m worried about? I’m worried about Vietnam. You know, the citizens there, the civilians, we see terrible healthcare problems there. Do you think the American Medical Association would be willing to help us with a volunteer corps of doctors to help the civilians in Vietnam?” And the president of the AMA said, “Absolutely. We’d be happy to do that.” And he said, “Great! Let’s call the press in here, have a press conference right now.” Got the press in, explained that the AMA is going to back this voluntary program to send doctors to Vietnam.

And then, of course the next questions from the press were, “Well, what about this boycott we hear is going to happen?” And the president says, “You mean to tell me that these doctors, who would volunteer to help the poor in Vietnam, wouldn’t help our elderly here at home?” and turned to the president of the AMA and said, “You tell them what you think.” And the president of the AMA said, “Well, we will support Medicare.” And they entered a period of several months of a negotiation that led to “improving” amendments, but moved them from total opposition to talking about how to get them under the fold so that you could make this thing work.

Only thing that can move the public to recognize the value and the meaning of what we have with policy — we will have the battle back and forth between pro and con and so on — but the only person who can lead that same kind of experience is going to be the president.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, what did you think of his leadership in the healthcare reform debate?

DR. ATUL GAWANDE: I was frustrated by it. The leadership with Congress was incredible — getting the votes, getting the detailed understanding of what you need to get everybody together. It was a Lyndon Johnson masterful performance. In fact, the whole year has been an incredible Congress that has been able to pass all kinds of blocked reforms that have been important to make some progress on. But you also have a role — there’s leadership needed to give meaning to the policies for the public and to explain what the value is. And that communication, from one of our great communicators in the campaign — I’m not sure the reasons why; I understand the energy is divided between trying to focus on the congressional job and so — but it allowed the opponents to brand every one of those policies as failures, even though they passed. And that — and it’s not just about branding. It’s about being able to tell the story of where we have been, where we are going, and help people understand the vision of what we — of what we need for the economy, for healthcare, and so on.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Dr. Atul Gawande, a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, staff writer at The New Yorker magazine. In a minute, we’re going to go to Harry Belafonte assessing what President Obama has accomplished in this two years, but before we go to him I want to get your assessments. Joan Claybrook, you actually worked with Johnson in the administration to pass Medicare.

JOAN CLAYBROOK: Right, I was at the Social Security Administration, and it was very tough. And Johnson was unrelenting, and he went after every member of Congress and got their vote that he possibly could. And it gave such enthusiasm to the people who were trying to help design the program. And it’s changed America. You know, America is a different place because of Medicare.

AMY GOODMAN: And yet, many in Congress are saying, particularly the Republicans, but Democrats joining them, it’s Social Security and Medicare that are bankrupting us.

JOAN CLAYBROOK: That’s right. But we should have Medicare for all. And if we had Medicare for all, then, you know, this nation would be so much healthier, and the costs would go down, because people would go to the doctor when they needed to do so.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, your overall assessment of President Obama at this point, Rocky Anderson, mayor, former mayor of Salt Lake City, who took on the Bush administration perhaps like no other mayor in the United States?

ROCKY ANDERSON: We need leadership on these issues. It’s just what we’ve been talking about, comparing the Johnson administration on Medicare. Look at what FDR did on Social Security. We have none of that leadership anymore. And I think money, the corrupting influence of money in politics has a great deal to do with that. But look at what this president could do on issues like climate change. He didn’t even mention it last night. The Rasmussen Reports survey just showed that 41 percent of Americans think that President Obama either believes that climate change is just a natural process, or they don’t know his position — 41 percent of Americans. Why don’t they know? He didn’t even mention the issue during his State of the Union. And in terms of climate change, the state of the union, state of the world, is very, very poor and dangerous.

AMY GOODMAN: Tea Party is powerful here in Utah.

ROCKY ANDERSON: The Tea Party — because of the Tea Party, Senator Bennett was defeated. And I think Senator Hatch is going to be threatened by the Tea Party here.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, the response, do you think, if President Obama wants to be president again?

ROCKY ANDERSON: I think that what we need is somebody who will stand up. You know, he sounds like a broken record about this bipartisanship. What we really need is a strong leader who believes in setting the course back straight. And it’s not through trickle-down economics. It’s not through these massive tax cuts for the wealthy. It’s not in backing down on climate change. It’s taking a stand and saying we’re going to provide healthcare for everybody in this country, and we’re going to address the problems that are going to impact not only those of us today, but our children and our grandchildren for a very long time. And it’s not being done by this administration or by this congress.

JOAN CLAYBROOK: Look what happened with Bush. A lot of people didn’t agree with George Bush’s policies, but they respected him because he fought like a dog to try and get those things enacted into law. And I think that the American public respects strong leaders, even if they don’t always understand or completely agree with everything they say.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there. Joan Claybrook, president emerita of Public Citizen, and Rocky Anderson, the former mayor of Salt Lake City and founder and director of High Road for Human Rights. That does it for this segment. When we come back, we’ll hear from Harry Belafonte, and then we’ll go to Egypt, unprecedented protests, at least for, well, more than 30 years.

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Dr. Atul Gawande Compares Obama’s “Frustrating” Record on Healthcare Reform and LBJ’s Leadership in Passing Medicare

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