Is ObamaCare on the road to recovery?

This is a rush transcript from "Journal Editorial Report," December 7, 2013. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

PAUL GIGOT, HOST: That week on the "Journal Editorial Report," the White House touts the re-launch and rising enrollment numbers. Is ObamaCare on the road to recovery? We'll sort the truth from the spin.

Plus, new global education rankings once again show American students lagging. So just how worried should we be?

And China flexes its military muscle as Vice President Joe Biden visits the region. Will the U.S. stand firm with Japan as tensions rise?


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Obviously, the website, when it was first launched, wasn't in tip-top shape, to say the least. But we have been 24/7 going at it. And now, for the vast majority of users, it's working. So I'm going to need you all to spread the word about how the Affordable Care Act really works, what its benefits are, what its protections are and, most importantly, how people can sign up.


GIGOT: Welcome to the "Journal Editorial Report." I'm Paul Gigot.

That was President Obama at this week's White House Youth Summit pitching the revamped websites to Millennials, a group that is crucial to the Affordable Care Act's success. The White House and congressional Democrats are touting this week's re-launch, pointing to reports of rising enrollment numbers and regrouping to sell the controversial law to a still skeptical public. So is ObamaCare on the road to recovery?

Let's ask Wall Street Journal editorial board member, Joe Rago; deputy editor, Dan Henninger; and Potomac Watch columnist, Kim Strassel.

So, Joe, has ObamaCare turned the corner here as the White House says?


JOE RAGO, EDITORIAL BOARD MEMBER: They'd love to make you think that. But what that did is they picked a -- they made a deliberate political decision to fix the part of the website that consumers see. But they haven't fixed the so-called back end. This is the information systems that transmit data to insurers about who's signing up for their products. It's essentially like ordering something online and never having it go to the warehouse to be delivered to you.

GIGOT: So the interface with the consumer is improved and the sign-up numbers --


RAGO: But still not back -- still not totally up to speed.

GIGOT: Well, they're pitching this 29,000 enrollment figure for the first two days of December. Is that meaningful?

RAGO: They were locking for seven million people to sign up. Even if you get 29,000 every day, you're still not going to hit that number.

KIM STRASSEL, POTOMAC WATCH COLUMNIST: House Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp put out a little notice pointing out that what they, in fact, need to hit that seven million number is 100,000 people a day.

GIGOT: Right.

STRASSEL: So 29,000 over two days, that's 15 percent of the numbers they need to be hitting.

GIGOT: Dan, one goal the White House had here was, as Joe suggests, politically. Namely, tht they needed to stop the Democrats from -- on Capitol Hill in particular from running away from the law. This seems to have worked. That spin about how this is all fixed now. You don't hear a lot of Democratic criticism.

DAN HENNINGER, DEPUTY EDITOR: I think, in part, Paul, is because a lot of the Democrats on the Hill are not really themselves up to speed on the technology that's been applied to this system. So short term, for a week or so, yeah, they can get some quiet up on Capitol Hill.

But Obama's biggest problem is the young people, the so-called Millennials -- excuse me -- are not signing up. We just had this Harvard poll out this week which said about 57 percent of them disapprove of ObamaCare. One of the reasons is that the cost is very high. They didn't know the cost was going to be so high. But the other reason is the website is an experience that you would expect to have had back in the early 1990s, not 2013. They have something, for instance, called a queuing tool, which means, let's say, if 50,000 people are using the website, a little sign that will say, give us your e-mail address, you can't get on, and we'll call you back.


For Millennials this is laughable. And they just lose faith in the system. So I think the process of signing people up is going to lose ground over time.

GIGOT: Is it that big a problem, Joe? You're a Millennial. What do you think?


I mean, is this something your generation looks at and says, this is a bit ridiculous, given where we are technologically?

RAGO: I think so. Part of it is the technological problem but part of it is the product that they're being required by law to buy.


RAGO: They just don't like it?

RAGO: This is an overpriced product. It's very tightly regulated. It's not the kind of -- it doesn't adapt to changing circumstances. It's saying everyone should want the same thing. That's just not true.

GIGOT: What about, Kim, this White House -- much talked about White House offensive going on to sell this not only to get Millennials to enroll but to get the public to think better about it? They're going around, picking anecdotes: This person gets help because they couldn't get coverage before. This person had a pre-existing condition. This person is now on Medicaid. It's a very concerted, deliberate strategy. What's behind this?

STRASSEL: They're trying to make it -- suggest that it works. They now have the website somewhat in order at the front end so they can say, look, you can get there and you can get your thing. The problem is they've got like 10 of these examples, right? That has to be compared against the millions of people who are losing their coverage. And so what you see are -- they're rolling out all the Democrats to go and do this. Lots of people are. Rather than running, they're now forcefully coming out. You're seeing people like Mary Landrieu saying, I would vote for --

GIGOT: Senator from Louisiana, Senator.

STRASSEL: Louisiana, yeah, who is up in a tough re-election this next year. And after a month of saying, well, we need to fix this, now she's out saying, I would vote for this law again. Here's the good things that are there. So they're going to try to make this an asset.

GIGOT: What are the markers, Joe, that we should be looking for here in the coming weeks to come, whether or not this thing is actually gaining more momentum and is working like the White House says?

RAGO: One thing is that they've refused to say how severe the back end problems are. They said they've fixed the problems but they won't say how much -- how many problems there were to begin with. And so --

GIGOT: So it's still a black box.

RAGO: Right. You can't just trust anything that comes out of the Health and Human Services Administration. So once they start revealing more information -- we've seen these leaps this week about a surge of enrollment. When they start to be more transparent, that will be a sign that things are better. I don't think that's going to happen.

GIGOT: Dan, do you see any sign that the White House is going to anything other than tough this out, march on, declare victory no matter what happens, and just make sure that they can -- this will improve as it goes on?

HENNINGER: No, absolutely. I think that is indeed the plan, is just to cram this down, push it through one way or another until you get enough people on the subsidies, that will make it difficult to get them off. The problem with the strategy, Paul, is I think a lot of people like the Millennials or people losing their insurance are finding out that essentially ObamaCare is a welfare program and that they're going to pay higher costs, higher premiums, so that other people over here, the insured and people with pre-existing conditions, can be subsidized. That wasn't the way ObamaCare was represented when it was sold to Congress. I think that is going to create a political problem out in the country for them.

GIGOT: All right, Dan, thanks.

When we come back, renewed handwringing over the state of American education as new international rankings find U.S. students once again lagging in math, science and reading. So how concerned should we be? There's a debate ahead.


GIGOT: Well, another mediocre showing for American students, this time, in the Program for International Student Assessments, global education scores, which rank 15-year-olds from around the world in reading, math and science. This year's results show the U.S. once again in the middle of the pack, far outpaced by East Asian countries like Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea.

We're back with Dan Henninger and Kim Strassel. And Wall Street Journal deputy editorial page editor, Bret Stephens, also joins the group.

So, Kim, how seriously should we take an international ranking like this?

STRASSEL: I think we should take it seriously. I mean, some people will say, look, we're in the middle, we didn't necessarily fall very far, we've just sort of been there, things aren't getting worse. On the other hand, the world is changing. The skills you're need to survive in the world and compete in the world, and also we're now in a global economy competing for skills, that we need to be making progress on the start rather than going behind.

I think what also has people nervous is that this comes despite many years now of the United States being focused on this question, No Child Left Behind, other pieces of legislation, Common Core debate, state efforts to improve things, and we're not noticeably making huge progress.

GIGOT: No noticeable improvement, at least on the global rankings, Bret.

BRET STEPHENS, DEPUTY EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR: Yeah, but rankings in education seem to have very little to do with the success of individuals in later life, much less the success of the economy. There's this false equation that countries with great educational systems are going to have innovative, dynamic economies. Is that true of Japan? Of course, it's not. Is that true of Finland? It's not there either. Their one champion corporation is Nokia. Take a country like Israel, which produces --

GIGOT: But they have fewer people than New York City.



STEPHENS: It's got half as many people as Belgium, and that's what makes, by the way, a lot of these comparisons a little bit ridiculous, comparing a country of five million people --

GIGOT: So we should ignore them?

STEPHENS: Yes, I think we should ignore them because they basically tell you nothing except to invest a lot of money in education, and that's what we do here in the United States, putting more and more money into schools, with, really, very little to show for it.

STRASSEL: No, that's the opposite, in fact, because what's happened, what this shows is you put a lot of money into education, that's not working.


GIGOT: We're doing great -- we're doing great in spending money. We're right up at the top.

STRASSEL: Yeah. So clearly, something else has to be done because that's not doing it for us.


STEPHENS: Look, education is a value in and of itself. There's a lot to be said for having smarter 15 or 18 or 21-year-olds. But that debate shouldn't be had on, you know, by saying this is what's going to predict our success or failures as a country going into the --


GIGOT: All right, but it's not -- you're right, it's not the only variable. There's a dynamic economy and there's -- what are your policies, all of those kinds of things.

But, Dan, there's a competition in the world now for human capital, right? You want to get the best and the brightest. One of the problems with Japan, for example, is it doesn't take immigrants. So they don't attract the world's smartest individuals, like we still do, although we're trying to keep them out. Do you agree with Bret?

HENNINGER: You know, I really don't. Let me give you two examples. It's not really my examples. It's their example. Lichtenstein and Switzerland, these are two countries that --

GIGOT: Bellwether nations.


HENNINGER: There was a lot of reporting done on these studies and this is what came out of these two countries. They -- their administrator said, look, we are fly specks in the world economy. We are just these teensy little countries. And we understand that we have to be better than most if we're going to compete. So what both of those countries have done is made a concerted effort to emphasize mathematics instruction. They take upwards of eight hours of math a week. And they have innovative programs to teach it. They understand their kids are going to have to know this stuff. They drill them. They discipline them. And they succeed. It's not rocket science.

And I think if our schools understood that they were in the same competitive pool, that we would try to do the same sort of innovation.

And I will say one more thing, if the teachers unions will allow that kind of innovation here.

GIGOT: One of the things I like about this is it does at least wake up America. It says, you know what, your success in the world economy is not guaranteed.

STEPHENS: Yes, but Lichtenstein and Switzerland's success in the world has to do with bank secrecy and low taxes. I mean, the Swiss and the Lichtensteinians, by the way, a country of, I think, about 25,000 people --

GIGOT: All right, but let's not change the subject. Let's go on to - -


GIGOT: -- whether or not education is something we ought to care about as a competitive -- something to help our competitor.

STEPHENS: There are other things we ought to care about more. We should have an environment that encourages immigrants to come to this country, to innovate, to succeed, and to have second chances in life in case they fail the first time. That's much more important to making sure that Johnny at 15 is at the same level of those mighty Lichtensteinians in calculus.

STRASSEL: Yeah, but that's suggesting we just don't care about this issue. I mean, we should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. You can have all of those things and also want an education system that improves.

The thing is, we know what you need to do to make it better. It's not spending $115,000 per head. It's having some school choice, having merit- based pay for teachers, having competition between teachers and, in general, giving our kids a better environment, especially in K through 12, where their instructors are inspiring them to be at school and learn these things.

STEPHENS: That's all true. But this isn't the key to national success.

GIGOT: OK, Bret, thank you.

When we come back, Vice President Joe Biden wraps up his Asian trip amid rising tensions over China's renewed military aggression towards Japan. Will the U.S. stand behind its ally?



JOE BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We, the United States, are deeply concerned for the attempt to unilaterally change the status quo in the East Chinese Sea. This action has raised regional tensions and increased the risks of accidents and miscalculations.


GIGOT: Vice President Joe Biden Tuesday voicing concern over China's aggressive new Air Defense Identification Zone in the East Chinese Sea. The comments came during his week-long trip to the region, which included more than five hours of face-to-face meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who showed no sign of backing down from his bid to exercise control over Japan's Senkaku Islands.

So, Dan, let's step back a second and give viewers a sense of why Americans should care about this dispute over some islands in the East China Sea.

HENNINGER: Well, I think they should care because it looks as though that area of the world is becoming destabilized. You have China, its intention with not only Japan, but a lot of the countries down in the South China Sea, Indonesia, the Philippines, and they are using their muscle to try to push their hegemony over those waters. And these countries, right, especially Japan and South Korea, are going to push back. So you've got a very tense situation down there. Historically, in the entire post-war period, the United States has, shall we say, had the back of countries like Japan and South Korea. And at this moment, they literally are explicitly doubting that. That's why Vice President Biden had to go out there, to reassure them.

And I have to say, Paul, I have no recollection of a U.S. administration in the post-war period having to go out on a trip like Mr. Biden's and reassure our allies that we were behind them. It's unprecedented.

GIGOT: So we also, Bret, have a treaty obligation to defend Japan if it is attacked.

STEPHENS: Including these little islands.

GIGOT: Including the little islands, right. Did Joe Biden succeed in reassuring Japan?

STEPHENS: No, I actually think he raised some doubts, deep doubts, in the minds of Japan's foreign ministry and of its leaders.


GIGOT: You've been talking to your sources in Asia?

STEPHENS: Yeah. There's real nervousness. Basically, they're as nervous as, say, the Saudis and the Israelis are when it companies to Iran. There's a sense this is an administration that wants to put America in retreat. The administration's been talking about channels of communication with the Chinese when what they should be saying is we will not recognize this Air Defense Identification Zone and, in fact, we'll take proactive steps to prevent the Chinese from enforcing it.

GIGOT: But they did sent B-52s --

STEPHENS: That's right.

GIGOT: -- through that air identification zone without informing the Chinese in advance. And I assume you support that.

STEPHENS: I praised it on the show last week, absolutely.

GIGOT: So what is it that they are doing that is inadequate in your view of sending that message of --


STEPHENS: There are very sort of precise, diplomatic terms of art and rhetoric that the administration ought to be using. One of the things they ought to be saying is we recognize the Senkaku Islands as sovereign Japanese territory. We are treaty bound from our defense treaty with Japan, I think, from 1960, to defend those islands. We will take steps by, for instance, having joint patrols around the Senkaku Islands to make it clear to the Chinese how we view this matter.

GIGOT: We sent a signal about our alliance with Japan --

STEPHENS: Right. And to tell the Chinese at this relatively early stage to back off before there is some accident or miscalculation on their part.

GIGOT: Dan, China is a rising power. And history shows that when you have a rising power, especially an authoritarian power that is beginning to push its boundaries and assert itself -- and there's no question in my mind that China wants to dominate the Pacific and push the Americans out -- you really do have a situation where you can get military conflict if either -- if, for example, that rising power doesn't understand the limits, doesn't understand how the world will push back. Do you think the United States is giving that adequate signal to the Chinese?

HENNINGER: Absolutely, not, Paul. We just showed Vice President Biden saying essentially the right thing. But the problem is that's the really first time that a prominent American official has done that. You can't show up at the 11th hour, which is where we are now, and suddenly start making these blustery statements. The administration has had nobody at the highest level, including the secretary of state -- Secretary of State Kerry has been preoccupied with the Middle East -- working that area of the world persistently over a long period of time. You don't have to go public with every threat or every message to these people, but you do have to be talking and we simply have let them slide out there in that region of the world.

GIGOT: All, right, thanks very much.

We have to take one more break. When we come back, "Hits and Misses" of the week.


GIGOT: Time now for "Hits and Misses" of the week.

Dan, first to you.

HENNINGER: Well, a missed to my favorite headline of the week, Paul, which was that, "Obama orders the federal government to triple the use of renewable fuels." He "orders" them. This remained me the story of the King Canute, the king who went down to the ocean and ordered the tides to recede just like that. But there's a more serious point here. If he's going to triple the government's use of renewable fuels that means their energy bill is going to rise. And guess who will pay for this additional energy cost? We, the taxpayers. So it strikes me a lot like ObamaCare. It's going to be a lot more expensive then advertised.

GIGOT: All right.


STRASSEL: A miss to the fast-food walkouts that happened in 100 cities on Thursday, arranged by big labor, and done mostly so the president had something to talk about other than ObamaCare. It could talk about the minimum wage. But here's the cruel joke of that. The biggest issue facing most minimum-wage fast-food workers is ObamaCare because their hours are being cut so that companies will not be crushed by this bill. So now in order to change focus from that, we're also now talking about a minimum wage that would make it harder for them to get a job in the first place.



RAGO: Paul, I don't know if anybody at home is watching us on a $45,000 TV, but that's now an option.


Just in time for Christmas, Samsung has put out --



RAGO: -- a 45-inch ultra-high-end, ultra-high-definition television controlled by voice and hand gestures. That's more than a college education, a year of college education, or a car or even many American's income. But if you're frugal, $5,000 off on


GIGOT: All right, thanks, Joe.

And remember, if you have your own hit or miss, send it to us at And be sure to follow us on Twitter at JERonFNC.

That's it for this week's show. Thanks to my panel and all of you for watching. I'm Paul Gigot. Hope to see you right here next week.

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