Obama Trip Delayed for Health Care: Big Mistake or Smart Politics?

This is a rush transcript from "On the Record," March 12, 2010. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, FOX NEWS HOST: Tonight, a flight delay, but this is no ordinary flight delay. It is Air Force One, President Obama stunning us all by announcing a three-day delay of his trip to Indonesia and Australia. Now, he was supposed to leave this Thursday, but now he's taking off next Sunday. Why? Well, the Washington gridlock over health care. Big mistake or smart politics?

Former White House press secretary Dana Perino joins us live. Big mistake or smart politics?

DANA PERINO, FORMER WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: Smart politics. I don't think it's a big mistake, unless, of course, it turns out like the Olympics. Remember, he had the big trip over to Denmark and then doesn't end up getting the Olympics. I don't think, ultimately, that they get the health care bill, but do I think it's smart politics.

VAN SUSTEREN: So then it's Copenhagen all over. If you say you don't think he's going to ultimately get -- it's smart politics if they get the votes.

PERINO: Well, either way, OK? If he had left and the Democrats were floundering and they don't get the bill done, then all of them could blame him for being out of the country at the time when they needed him most.


PERINO: So it's smart politics for him either way.

VAN SUSTEREN: He -- he -- he can -- he loses either way if the bill goes down. He wins profoundly if the bill passes.

PERINO: At least he won't -- yes, he'll lose less badly. At least from (ph) the Democrats, he'll be able to say to them, I canceled my trip, or I postponed my trip. I was here. I was here to -- as they said today - - you know, they quoted him (INAUDIBLE) twisting arms. Too bad their legislation isn't persuasive enough to get people to want to vote for it, that they have to resort to those type of tactics.

But I think at the end of the day, it was a smart thing to leave -- because (INAUDIBLE) when I was working for President Bush, whenever you leave the country, there's all sorts of things that are happening back here in the United States that you have to try to deal with.

VAN SUSTEREN: But don't you work -- but isn't -- I mean, the Air Force One...


VAN SUSTEREN: ... the White House.

PERINO: You can try, and -- but if you're 14 hours ahead and you're - - or 12 to 14 hours ahead and you're trying to deal with things back here and you're not here at the nerve center, then you could be missing something. And this -- to him -- this is -- look, he's put it all on red. And if he were to leave the country and not see this through, I think that the Democrats would have a lot to complain about.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, now, we've seen him entertain, like, the Hispanic Caucus last night, and he's talked to a number of other Democrats. Is it too late? I mean, should he have been doing weeks ago?

PERINO: Maybe months ago, right? And I think the -- I think that the whole play -- I do think that we will look back on this, as people interested in policy and politics, as to how not to try to get legislation passed. They could have tried to bring on Republicans months ago. They waited too long. Then they had health care summit, and it's a farce. And now they have a bill where 3 to 1, the American people are against it. The intensity of the numbers of people who strongly oppose it have got to be very worrying. And even today, I saw one of the Hispanic members decided that they are going to vote no on the bill.

VAN SUSTEREN: He's joining us in just a few minutes.

PERINO: Well, good.

VAN SUSTEREN: And so the viewers are going to get to hear exactly why -- you know, why he's voting as he is. What -- when they say that he's twisting arms -- what do you -- I mean, I realize we're not in the Oval Office, we're not watching. But what do presidents do to twist arms?

PERINO: Well, I think that, one -- it's the, This is our only chance, this is a chance for our party, we've got to do this. And so there's something persuasive, and he's a persuasive guy.

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, what do you -- what if the answer is, Well, that's great for you to say, you have a four-year term, I have a two-year term, I'm up in November? How persuasive can that be?

PERINO: Yes, it's hard to say that to the president of the United States. But the other thing, the way that they twist arms is they also twist with one hand, but also give a hand-out with the other. And that's how you ended up with the backroom deals, with the "Cornhusker Kickback" and the "Louisiana Purchase" and all the backroom deals that made this so despicable in the first place.

VAN SUSTEREN: You know, I would think that if you are a popular president in a particular district, one of the things that I would think might be worth offering up is, I'll come campaign for you.

PERINO: Sure. So he tried that this week in Missouri, and several members of Congress decided not to -- not to -- not to be with him. It's really early in the presidency for that to be happening. It did happen to President Bush on a couple of stops, especially in that 2006 year. In 2008, remember all the press talked about how little he campaigned? He did what he needed to do in the districts that he could.

But at the end of the day, if you are a 14-month president and you already have members of your own party not wanting to be seen with you because of your major piece of legislation, you have depleted your capital.

VAN SUSTEREN: Is this a huge plus for him if health care passes? I mean, does that sort of, you know, redeem him for any other sort of missteps he might have...


PERINO: ... the Gallup poll today had him at his lowest numbers ever. I don't think that ramming through unpopular legislation is a formula for improving your leadership numbers. And I don't know where they go from here. I don't see how he ever gets back up to 50 percent at a sustainable level.

VAN SUSTEREN: And so it's -- so damned if you do, damned if you don't for him. He needs to figure some way out of this.

PERINO: Well, I think the one thing that they could have done, and they could still do it, is to pull back and say, OK, America, we hear you. Let's take these five pieces. Let me get the Republicans together. Let's try to get something done. And let's also move on and start talking about jobs in America again.

VAN SUSTEREN: Or if the legislation, for whatever reason, turned out to be hugely popular and successful, if it's passed.

PERINO: I -- well...

VAN SUSTEREN: You don't anticipate that, but I mean, that's the other way...


PERINO: And when would we ever know that, right? People are going to be taxed for the next several years and not see benefits for four to five years after that. And nobody -- you know, if 41 percent of the people who oppose the bill strongly oppose it, and your numbers are at 62 percent or something like that in America that don't even want this bill, I don't see how it becomes popular. Maybe they're right, right? Like Nancy Pelosi said this week, we have to pass it in order for to you understand what's in it.

VAN SUSTEREN: I she probably wants a do-over on that.

PERINO: I would say that the Democrats would like to do over this entire week (INAUDIBLE) I used to say at the White House every Friday night, Next week has got to be better than this one, and it rarely is in Washington.

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, sometimes things can only be up (ph) when you hit the bottom. Anyway, Dana, thank you.

Speaker Pelosi needs 216 yesses. Does she have them? Now, we don't know. We only know tonight that it is close, it's very close, and it could go either way. And the votes seem to be changing every single minute. Now, we can tell new this. Right now, Democrats are hovering around 211 yes votes.

Joining us live is Adriel Bettelheim, managing editor news for Congressional Quarterly. Adriel, 211? Is that where your number count is? I mean, we're all sort of looking at this, trying to count heads, but...

ADRIEL BETTELHEIM, CQPOLITICS.COM: Yes, I think it's really kind of a jump ball. She needs about five or six more. And isn't it nice, after 13 months of talking about the intricacies of health policy, we're in good, old-fashioned nose counting now? It's that point in the debate.

VAN SUSTEREN: So what does she need to do? I mean, how -- I mean, it is the Bart Stupak, those who don't like the abortion language that's her bigger problem, or is it the fiscal conservatives? Who is she focusing tonight?

BETTELHEIM: I think she's focusing on the Blue Dog Democrats. And I think she's given up on the anti-abortion crowd. I think Pelosi's folks seem to think that Stupak was maybe leaning on the scale a little bit by saying he had as many 12 or 13 lawmakers with him. I think that probably about half of them are going to end up voting for the bill. They don't want to scuttle the entire effort just over the abortion. It's one of many principles that kind of get bargained away in this whole process.

VAN SUSTEREN: What do they do about the fiscal conservative who is in a district that is a very conservative district and he's got lousy or she's got lousy numbers right now and November is just around the corner? I mean, what can -- what can Speaker Pelosi offer to get the vote?

BETTELHEIM: One thing that they've done is they've twinned the health care bill with a student loan overhaul that the administration portrays as a money saver. They're going to have the government originate student loans instead of giving subsidies to banks to do it. They portray that as a net win. So when you combine something that has a lot of up-front taxes and social engineering with a money saver, they're hoping that that appeals to some of the fiscal conservatives in the House.

VAN SUSTEREN: Even though that may appear to many Americans as an incredible gimmick because how can you make student loan a health care issue and bundle it together, yet refuse to put the doctor fix on it, which is $250 billion to $300 billion dollars, onto health care, when doctors deliver health care, knowing that that will bring you above your CBO score, you know, an astronomical -- I mean, that sort of gimmicky thing -- I would think that that would be a hard sell back home, no matter which way you're going.

BETTELHEIM: Yes, I mean, I don't know how much the voters are focusing on the tit-for-tat on how much they could gain from this overhaul. I think...

VAN SUSTEREN: But it looks a little bit like -- it's -- it's -- also, you feel like you're being had a little bit because these things don't -- some things should be there that aren't and some things are there that aren't. And so if you're trying to say, you know, Trust me, and we see, you know, sort of like fooling around with what you're doing, it's -- it's unsettling.

BETTELHEIM: It's tough for the lawmakers who have to go back every weekend and face these folks who are increasingly skeptical about Washington's ability to do anything, let alone reshape the health system. They're wondering about, you know, the effect of the stimulus. And you know, they see more of this kind of big government up-front social engineering and they have to kind of wonder. So they are really on the firing line. The Democratic leaders have put them in a tough spot, and now it's really kind of a reckoning.

VAN SUSTEREN: Who's feeling more confident in the House right now, the Republicans or the Democrats? Do the Republicans think that they're going to prevent the number or Democrats think they're going to get it?

BETTELHEIM: Well, I mean, the Republicans, they know what they're going to do. They're going to say no, and of course, the House rules are such where the minority pretty much gets rolled on a regular basis. So I think that is preordained. The interesting thing will be in the Senate, where the Republicans can use a variety of tactical ways, offering amendments, raising points of order, to at least slow the process down.

VAN SUSTEREN: But I imagine the Republicans are sitting there, thinking that Speaker Pelosi is really hustling the Democratic conservatives tonight, offering all sorts of things, so I imagine the Republican are trying to think of how they can out-offer or how they can scare the living daylights out of the conservatives.

BETTELHEIM: They already are raising the prospect that the Senate won't make the House fixes, you know, that it's part of this convoluted two-part strategy that they've concocted, and they're trying to play on their fears. So it's -- it's -- you know, this is going to be a leap of faith. Like any big piece of legislation, whether it's Democrats or Republicans, they sort of at some point all join hands, and the ones who are on take the jump. And as we said, with health care particularly, you don't know for three, four, five, ten years.

VAN SUSTEREN: Best estimate as to when this vote's going to go down?

BETTELHEIM: Well, the House has set up a procedure where they're going to try to do a vote Thursday, the 18th, the deadline. I think it could slip into the weekend.

VAN SUSTEREN: Adriel, thank you. We'll watch. Thank you.

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