Prime-time push for health care reform

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Wednesday tried hard to create momentum for his ailing health care overhaul plan, offering a lengthy, methodical — and at times defensive — explanation of why people should embrace his changes.

Obama, whose plan has been stymied by moderate Democrats who worry about higher taxes and Republicans who paint the effort as a big government takeover of health care, told the nation in a prime-time news conference the initiative is "central" to his effort to rebuild the economy "stronger than before."

Obama's latest health care push came as his popularity has been slipping. In a July 9-13 Ipsos-McClatchy poll, 57 percent said they approved of the job Obama was doing, a 7-point drop from June and the lowest of his presidency.

The president was intent on explaining his push for health care, and virtually every question at the news conference dealt with that subject.

In response to a question from McClatchy, he said as a symbolic gesture he would use any public option that became law.

"Not only the public option, but the insurance regulation that we want to put in place will largely match up with what members of Congress are getting through the federal employee plan," Obama said.

He urged people to be patient, saying "We just can't afford what we're doing right now," and he appeared to be irritated by critics who say the nation can't afford the change.

"Everybody who's out there who has been ginned up about this idea that the Obama administration wants to spend and spend and spend, the fact of the matter is, is that we inherited an enormous deficit," he said.

Obama said, "Many Americans may be wondering, 'What's in this for me? How does my family stand to benefit from health insurance reform?'

"Tonight," the president said, "I want to answer those questions." He listed a host of areas where the White House and key lawmakers have "rough agreement." They want to keep government out of health care decisions, "giving you the option to keep your insurance if you're happy with it," Obama said.

Small businesses and the uninsured will be able to choose coverage through "exchanges" designed to promote competition. No company will be permitted to deny coverage because of an existing condition.

What has stifled progress on the legislation, though, is cost and the role of the government. Obama offered assurance to skeptics, saying he wouldn't buy any proposal that increased the federal deficit.

"Already, we have estimated that two-thirds of the cost of reform can be paid for by reallocating money that is simply being wasted in federal health care programs."

Obama reiterated his oft-stated pledge that the middle class wouldn't see higher taxes to fund health care.

He has a tough job in convincing Congress, however. The Congressional Budget Office said the House of Representatives proposal would add $239 billion to the deficit over 10 years.

Moderate-to-conservative House Democrats, or "Blue Dogs," found that figure daunting and want more spending cuts first.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, said Wednesday she's optimistic an agreement will be reached. "Some of the issues that the Blue Dogs have put forth are issues that we are all concerned about," she said.

"We are making progress," she added, "and I have no question that we have the votes on the floor of the House to pass this legislation."

Obama had said he wants the Senate and House to pass health care legislation before their summer recesses. The House is to leave July 31; the Senate a week later.

Even those deadlines are now in doubt, however, and Obama said Wednesday "we will do it this year."