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Obama: Health Overhaul 'Central' To Economic Fix

U.S. President Barack Obama answers a question during a news conference in the East Room of the White House July 22, 2009 in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla
U.S. President Barack Obama answers a question during a news conference in the East Room of the White House July 22, 2009 in Washington, DC.

President Obama argued during a prime-time news conference Wednesday that the American economy cannot be rebuilt without overhauling the nation's health care system.

"Even as we rescue this economy from full-blown crisis," Obama said, "we must rebuild it stronger than before.

"And health care reform is central to that effort," said the president, who stressed the consensus that lawmakers and workers in the health care sector have reached on a number of bottom-line overhaul issues: from capping out-of-pocket medical expenses to covering preventive care.


"Even though we still have a few issues to work out," he said, "what's remarkable at this point is not how far we have left to go — it's how far we have already come."

Obama also touted progress he says his administration has made to stabilize the nation's financial institutions and housing market, as well as its investment in stimulus programs, while rehashing a laundry list of problems inherited from the Bush administration.

"We've stepped away from the brink," he said.

And in answering a question at the close of the news conference, the president waded into the case of his friend, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., an African-American who last week was arrested by police at his home after a neighbor reported seeing him force open a stuck front door.

Saying that "race remains a factor in the society," Obama characterized the police as having "acted stupidly" by arresting someone in his own home.


It 'Isn't About Me'

But Wednesday's televised news conference was dominated by the health care overhaul, the centerpiece of the president's domestic agenda. The effort in recent weeks has become mired in a partisan Washington battle that even his most ardent supporters say Obama needs to win.

Obama's fourth prime-time news conference was part of the health care hard sell he has undertaken this week amid an increasingly strident free-for-all over the politics and price of his ambitious plan. He plans to visit the Cleveland Clinic for an event Thursday.

During his hour-long appearance Wednesday, Obama, who has been meeting privately with recalcitrant House Democrats and chatting with liberal bloggers and newspaper editorialists, repeated what has become his frequent refrain: that the proposed massive health care overhaul "isn't about me."

"I have great health insurance, and so does every member of Congress," he said.

But the president's original fast-track timetable of legislation by Aug. 7, when Congress breaks for its summer recess, appears to have little chance as committees continue to wrangle over the proposal.

When asked why he pushed for the August deadline, the president said: "If you don't set a deadline in this town, nothing will happen. Inertia is the default position."

But, he said, no matter when the bill gets sent to him, if it "isn't right," he won't sign it.

'What's In It For Me?'

Obama attempted to lay out in clearer detail his answer to what the White House has called the "What's in it for me?" question: how spiraling costs of insurance and the growing numbers of Americans without coverage, now estimated at 47 million, could cripple the country and affect individuals.

"If we do not control these costs, we will not be able to control our deficit," Obama said. "If we do not reform health care, your premiums and out-of-pocket costs will continue to skyrocket. If we do not act, 14,000 Americans will continue to lose their health insurance every single day."

Before taking questions from the White House press corps, Obama assured viewers at home that, under his plan, if they have insurance and are happy with it, they can keep it, and the government will stay out of their medical decisions.

But he pledged that his overhaul would limit out-of-pocket expenses, as well as prevent insurance companies from dropping coverage "if you get too sick" and from denying coverage because of pre-existing medical conditions.

Americans, Obama said, "are counting on us to get this done. They are looking to us for leadership. And we must not let them down."

Status Quo

"If we don't change," Obama said, "we can't expect a different result."

And if nothing changes, Obama said in response to a question about the cost of his proposal, the government-funded insurance programs of Medicare and Medicaid will "break the national budget."

In addition, he said, insurance premiums, which doubled over the past decade, will continue their rise.

More families will lose health care, those who have it will pay more for it and employers will pass more health care costs on to their employees or simply stop providing coverage, he said.

The president said that two-thirds of his overhaul plan could be paid for by redirecting tax dollars already being spent.

"The remaining one-third is what the argument has been of late," he said.

Obama said that his scheme to pay for that one-third would involve limiting itemized deductions wealthy Americans can take on their tax returns. But he acknowledged that none of the legislative scenarios being considered on Capitol Hill contain his proposal.

"I continue to think my idea is the best one," he said, adding that he would consider others as long as they don't place the burden on the middle class. He noted that the House is considering a surcharge on families with a joint income of more than $1 million.

The Word No One Will Speak

Reporters questioning the president danced around one of the major concerns embedded in the proposed overhaul: how and whether it will result in "rationing" of health care to achieve savings.

The president was asked if Americans will have to sacrifice anything.

"They'll have to give up paying for things that don't make them healthier," Obama said. "Why would we pay for things that don't work?"

But when pressed about whether he could guarantee that government won't deny coverage — that health care decisions would be left up to doctor and patient, the president demurred.

"Can I guarantee no changes in the health care delivery system? No," he said, noting that the point of his proposed overhaul is change.

Republicans Want Time

Top Republicans say they want more time to hammer out details of overhaul legislation. And on Wednesday, they worked to reframe their previous argument against Obama's initiative, which boiled down to "kill it."

In comments to reporters, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said that, like the president, he wants a bill passed by the end of the year that "improves health care."

But he said that he wants to see the legislation include controversial limits on lawsuits that can be brought against doctors and hospitals, and an effort to cap insurance costs by offering incentives that would help curb preventable diseases.

McConnell's comments came on the heels of a stepped-up assault by Democrats on Republicans like Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, who have suggested that derailing the health care overhaul could give the GOP an enormous political win.

The Democratic Party on Wednesday launched a television ad in DeMint's home state, criticizing the senator for suggesting that, "If we're able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo. It will break him."

In the ads and on Capitol Hill, Democrats revived their criticism of Republicans as belonging to the "party of no" for failing to offer an alternative plan. GOP strategists have also been advising party leaders in recent days that they need to articulate a message more constructive than a political kill.

Obama Also On Message

The president Wednesday night also played off DeMint's comments, and worked to turn the politics in his favor by suggesting he's above the game.

"I understand how easy it is for this town to become consumed in the game of politics — to turn every issue into a running tally of who's up and who's down," he said. "I've heard that one Republican strategist told his party that even though they may want to compromise, it's better to 'go for the kill.' Another Republican senator said that defeating health reform is about 'breaking' me."

However, Obama said that he "hasn't been out there blaming Republicans" for wrenches thrown in the overhaul machinery.

Even before the president's appearance Wednesday, the Republican Party was firing back.

The party sent out an e-mail excerpting press coverage that noted behind-the-scenes arm-twisting the White House has engaged in to move the overhaul plan along, and plans by some progressive groups to target Democrats who don't toe the president's health care line.

Brian Walsh of the National Republican Senatorial Committee said he found it "ironic" that the president was bemoaning the politics of Washington while Democratic leaders have been "holding press conferences attacking Republicans."

In an interview on MSNBC immediately after the president's appearance, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs acknowledged that the president doesn't expect a health care bill before the fall.

"We hope the House and Senate individually complete their work" before the August recess, Gibbs said. "This is the first stage."