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Week In Politics: A Deal On Ukraine And Health Care Numbers


And we're joined now by our regular Friday political observers, columnists E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution. Hey there, E.J.

E.J. DIONNE: Hey, good to be with you.

CORNISH: And David Brooks of The New York Times. Hi there, David.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to be with you.

CORNISH: You guys are both speaking with me from New York. Quickly, about the Keystone pipeline, just about everyone in that story saying this is political. I feel like I should ask you. Is it political, and if so, is this a good or bad move?

BROOKS: Well, I'd say it's nakedly political. It's a bad move. I think the president knows it's a bad move. He's been waiting for years to find the politically opportune time to approve it. I suspect he's going to do it after the midterms. But it's worth remembering that 65 percent of Americans think this is a good idea. Only 22 percent oppose, so it's just about rallying the base.

DIONNE: I think it is obviously a political decision. I think the problem is that the people who feel very strongly about this are environmentalists who Democrats need to turn out this fall. The Democrats can't afford not to have any piece of their base demobilized, and so it's not surprising the president keeps putting this off. Maybe he'll postpone it until 2017.

CORNISH: Now, other domestic news. Yesterday President Obama popped into the White House briefing to make some boasts about the Affordable Care Act. The act has topped 8 million people signed up, 35 percent of them under the age of 35. The president said that this should end the debate.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The point is the repeal debate is and should be over. The Affordable Care Act is working and I know the American people don't want us spending the next two and a half years refighting the settled political battles of the last five year.

CORNISH: All right. So between these numbers and the resignation of Kathleen Sebelius, is the White House effectively hitting the reset button, E.J.?

DIONNE: Well, I think they're in really good shape. It was really interesting to see the president yesterday because he looked really happy and he had reason to be happy. Not only did the number of enrolled through the exchanges hit 8 million, but the age mix was actually a pretty good age mix. I know David had been talking about it and other people had feared that this would tilt toward older and sicker people. It doesn't look like it's doing that.

He also went very aggressive in a way he hadn't gone before, calling out the states, mostly Republican states, that have not picked up the Medicaid expansion. And he noted that's keeping 5 million more people from getting health insurance. But lastly, he turned to jobs and he basically told Democrats, be proud of the ACA, defend it, but let's talk about jobs and the economy.

CORNISH: David, willing to concede victory yet here? I mean, it sounds like a lot of excitement.

BROOKS: No, I'm going back to the record. I'm going back to the record, you know. There are three parts to this bill and I think the president can claim victory on part one, which is an increase insurance coverage. That was probably not the controversial part. The second part is the cost curve; reducing healthcare inflation. When healthcare cost inflation was down over the past several months, the administration was bragging that this was because of ACA.

But now, healthcare cost inflation is back where it was at pre-recession levels. We'll see where that goes. But in the future, we'll have to decide, did it really bend the cost curve. And the third is just the mortality. Is health any better? And that's something we simply can't know yet, but these will be the three measures on which we judge this thing. I give the president - I give him a victory so far on number one, a C on number two and a vast incomplete on number three.

CORNISH: One thing that was unavoidable in that press conference: Ukraine. Yesterday, President Obama was asked about the deal reached by the U.S., Europe, Ukraine and Russia to ease tensions in eastern Ukraine and on this, the president was far more cautious. I mean, to quote him, he says, my hope is that we actually do see follow-through over the next several days, but I don't think given past performance that we can count on that.

To start with you, David, what do you make of this deal?

BROOKS: Yeah, the deal is a good thing, but the president's tone was much more striking. He was almost pooh-poohing it even as it was coming out and I think the administration clearly recognizes this thing is going to get a lot worse. Putin continues to talk in the most militaristic terms. The chaos in eastern Ukraine is still getting worse so we've got to think much more aggressively about anything we can do to deter sort of a blowup and more or less and invasion.

CORNISH: E.J., the rest of that quote, he says, we have to be prepared to potentially respond to what continue to be the efforts of interference by the Russians in eastern and southern Ukraine.

DIONNE: Yes. And I think he has been very tough in his language. He took some initial steps that were fairly tough, but if the Russians persist, if this agreement doesn't hold, he has signaled that he is willing to take a lot of tough economic steps that could cause real trouble, both for the Russian economy and for some of the people close to Vladimir Putin, possibly including Putin himself, some of the oligarchs.

I think the deal itself is a sign that the Russians may see that they are pushing the edge here. And the fact that they reached an agreement with the Ukrainian government says that maybe they're ready to pull back. But then, today, the leader of the pro-Russian forces in Donetsk said, well, we weren't part of this deal so they're not willing to pull back on the ground. I'm afraid we have a ways to go on this.

CORNISH: And, David, let's talk a little bit more about that because people were expressing some surprise that Russia went anywhere near this direction.

BROOKS: Yeah, I think they're playing a much longer game here. Putin has continued to ratch(ph) up his interest in preserving what he calls the Russians in Ukraine. They can try to see Ukraine collapse and then simply take over. You know, I think we've really got to start thinking about much wider sanctions. A lot of it's just psychological. We sort of started slowly with the sanctions and ratcheted them up and, unfortunately, Putin got in his place where he felt contemptuous of us. I think it might have been smarter to shock him with the total package of sanctions right away rather than let him get slowly used to them.

DIONNE: But I think the problem is that I think the United States is much more willing to put more sanctions on him than the Europeans are, and yet these sanctions won't work well if the Europeans aren't on board with a lot of them. So I think Obama pursued this policy to begin bringing the Europeans along to a tougher line on Putin. The test will come if Putin keeps pushing and whether the Europeans are willing to respond to that and go for more sanctions.

CORNISH: E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution, thanks so much.

DIONNE: Good to be with you.

CORNISH: David Brooks of The New York Times, thank you.

BROOKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.