July 22, 2009: President Obama’s Press Conference on Health Care Reform

By Bonnie K. Goodman

Ms. Goodman is the Editor / Features Editor at HNN. She has a Masters in Library and Information Studies from McGill University, and has done graduate work in history at Concordia University.

THE OBAMA PRESIDENCY:

Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

President Obama held a prime-time news conference on health care reform More Photos >

IN FOCUS: STATS

  • FACT CHECK: Obama’s health care claims adrift? President Barack Obama’s assertion Wednesday that government will stay out of health care decisions in an overhauled system is hard to square with the proposals coming out of Congress and with his own rhetoric. Even now, nearly half the costs of health care in the U.S. are paid for by government at all levels. Federal authority would only grow under any proposal in play…. – AP, 7-22-09
  • AP-GfK Poll: Great hopes for Obama fade to reality: An Associated Press-GfK Poll shows that a majority of Americans are back to thinking that the country is headed in the wrong direction after a fleeting period in which more thought it was on the right track. Obama still has a solid 55 percent approval rating — better than Bill Clinton and about even with George W. Bush six months into their presidencies — but there are growing doubts about whether he can succeed at some of the biggest items on his to-do list. And there is a growing sense that he is trying to tackle too much too soon…. – AP, 7-22-09
  • Obama’s Sinking Approval Ratings Are Even Worse Than They Look: Having come into office with an ambitious agenda to remake America, Barack Obama is discovering that time is not his friend. According to the latest USA Today/Gallup poll, Obama’s approval rating has dropped by nine points, down to 55 percent from where it was when he first entered the White House six months ago….
    The decline in Obama’s job approval number is matched, overmatched really, by a significant increase in the number of people who disapprove of the job he is doing as president. That number is up 16 points—to 41 percent—from the first time the survey was taken during the Obama presidency. – US News, 7-21-09

THE HEADLINES….

The news conference was held in the East Room of the White House.
Stephen Crowley/The New York Times The news conference was held in the East Room of the White House.
  • Obama Moves to Reclaim the Debate on Health Care: President Obama tried on Wednesday to rally public support for overhauling the nation’s health care system and said for the first time that he would be willing to help pay for the plan by raising income taxes on families earning more than $1 million a year…. – NYT, 7-22-09
  • Live Blogging Obama’s News ConferenceNYT, 7-22-09
  • Obama rallies support for struggling health revamp: Six months in office, President Barack Obama sought Wednesday night to rally support for sweeping health care legislation he’s struggling to push through Congress, expressing support for a surtax on families making more than $1 million a year to help pay for it. Under pressure from Democrats to weigh in personally on the details of legislation, Obama also vowed at a prime-time news conference to reject any measure “primarily funded through taxing middle-class families.”… – AP, 7-22-09
  • Pelosi: House Dems have the votes on health care: Democrats command the votes needed to pass a sweeping health care bill through the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Wednesday, an unexpected statement that quickly drew a biting response from conservative members of the party’s rank-and-file demanding changes in President Barack Obama’s trademark legislation…. – AP, 7-22-09
  • Conservative Democrat says US health bill not ready: A stalled healthcare overhaul bill in the House of Representative should not move forward without firm numbers on cost savings, and it is unlikely to win enough votes to pass in current form, the leader of a group of conservative Democrats said on Wednesday. – Reuters, 7-22-09
  • Obama’s Policy Hurdles Rise After Six Months of Record Spending: President Barack Obama in his first six months got a $787 billion economic stimulus package and asked Congress for $750 billion for the financial crisis along with a down payment on a $1 trillion overhaul of U.S. health care. The next six months may be more difficult…. – Bloomberg, 7-22-09
  • Obama: No time for delay on health care: President Barack Obama remained on the offensive Tuesday on the pace and shape of legislation reinventing health care, against stiffening opposition from Republicans and growing wariness among rank-and-file congressional Democrats…. – AP, 7-21-09
  • Democrats irked by Obama signing statement: President Barack Obama has irked close allies in Congress by declaring he has the right to ignore legislation on constitutional grounds after having criticized George W. Bush for doing the same. Four senior House Democrats on Tuesday said they were “surprised” and “chagrined” by Obama’s declaration in June that he doesn’t have to comply with provisions in a war spending bill that puts conditions on aid provided to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund…. – AP, 7-21-09
  • Abortion Compromise Considered For US House Health-Care Bill: An anti-abortion Democrat on Monday said he is negotiating a compromise aimed at resolving concerns that House health-care legislation would allow federal funding of abortions…. – WSJ, 7-20-09

POLITICAL QUOTES

DESCRIPTION
Brendan Smialowski for The New York Times The news conference on Wednesday night was the president’s fifth in total and the fourth held in prime-time.
  • Obama Makes Fresh Appeal on Health Care at Prime-time News Conference: …Six months ago, I took office amid the worst recession in half a century. We were losing an average of 700,000 jobs per month and our financial system was on the verge of collapse.
    As a result of the action we took in those first weeks, we have been able to pull our economy back from the brink. We took steps to stabilize our financial institutions and our housing market. And we passed a Recovery Act that has already saved jobs and created new ones; delivered billions in tax relief to families and small businesses; and extended unemployment insurance and health insurance to those who have been laid off.
    Of course, we still have a long way to go. And the Recovery Act will continue to save and create more jobs over the next two years – just like it was designed to do. I realize this is little comfort to those Americans who are currently out of work, and I’ll be honest with you – new hiring is always one of the last things to bounce back after a recession….
    That is why I’ve said that even as we rescue this economy from a full-blown crisis, we must rebuild it stronger than before. And health insurance reform is central to that effort.
    This is not just about the 47 million Americans who have no health insurance. Reform is about every American who has ever feared that they may lose their coverage if they become too sick, or lose their job, or change their job. It’s about every small business that has been forced to lay off employees or cut back on their coverage because it became too expensive. And it’s about the fact that the biggest driving force behind our federal deficit is the skyrocketing cost of Medicare and Medicaid.
    So let me be clear: if we do not control these costs, we will not be able to control our deficit. 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. These are the consequences of inaction. These are the stakes of the debate we’re having right now.
    I realize that with all the charges and criticisms being thrown around in Washington, many Americans may be wondering, “What’s in this for me? How does my family stand to benefit from health insurance reform?”
    Tonight I want to answer those questions. Because even though Congress is still working through a few key issues, we already have agreement on the following areas:
    If you already have health insurance, the reform we’re proposing will provide you with more security and more stability. It will keep government out of health care decisions, giving you the option to keep your insurance if you’re happy with it. It will prevent insurance companies from dropping your coverage if you get too sick. It will give you the security of knowing that if you lose your job, move, or change your job, you will still be able to have coverage. It will limit the amount your insurance company can force you to pay for your medical costs out of your own pocket. And it will cover preventive care like check-ups and mammograms that save lives and money.
    If you don’t have health insurance, or are a small business looking to cover your employees, you’ll be able to choose a quality, affordable health plan through a health insurance exchange – a marketplace that promotes choice and competition Finally, no insurance company will be allowed to deny you coverage because of a pre-existing medical condition.
    I have also pledged that health insurance reform will not add to our deficit over the next decade – and I mean it. In the past eight years, we saw the enactment of two tax cuts, primarily for the wealthiest Americans, and a Medicare prescription program, none of which were paid for. This is partly why I inherited a $1.3 trillion deficit.
    That will not happen with health insurance reform. It will be paid for. 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. This includes over one hundred billion dollars in unwarranted subsidies that go to insurance companies as part of Medicare – subsidies that do nothing to improve care for our seniors. And I’m pleased that Congress has already embraced these proposals. While they are currently working through proposals to finance the remaining costs, I continue to insist that health reform not be paid for on the backs of middle-class families.
    In addition to making sure that this plan doesn’t add to the deficit in the short-term, the bill I sign must also slow the growth of health care costs in the long run. Our proposals would change incentives so that doctors and nurses are free to give patients the best care, not just the most expensive care. That’s why the nation’s largest organizations representing doctors and nurses have embraced our plan.
    We also want to create an independent group of doctors and medical experts who are empowered to eliminate waste and inefficiency in Medicare on an annual basis – a proposal that could save even more money and ensure the long-term financial health of Medicare. Overall, our proposals will improve the quality of care for our seniors and save them thousands of dollars on prescription drugs, which is why the AARP has endorsed our reform efforts.
    Not all of the cost savings measures I just mentioned were contained in Congress’s draft legislation, but we are now seeing broad agreement thanks to the work that was done over the last few days. So even though we still have a few issues to work out, what’s remarkable at this point is not how far we have left to go – it’s how far we have already come.
    I understand how easy it is for this town to become consumed in the game of politics – to turn every issue into running tally of who’s up and who’s down. I’ve heard that one Republican strategist told his party that even though they may want to compromise, it’s better politics to “go for the kill.” Another Republican Senator said that defeating health reform is about “breaking” me.
    So let me be clear: This isn’t about me. I have great health insurance, and so does every Member of Congress. This debate is about the letters I read when I sit in the Oval Office every day, and the stories I hear at town hall meetings. This is about the woman in Colorado who paid $700 a month to her insurance company only to find out that they wouldn’t pay a dime for her cancer treatment – who had to use up her retirement funds to save her own life. This is about the middle-class college graduate from Maryland whose health insurance expired when he changed jobs, and woke up from emergency surgery with $10,000 in debt. This is about every family, every business, and every taxpayer who continues to shoulder the burden of a problem that Washington has failed to solve for decades.
    This debate is not a game for these Americans, and they cannot afford to wait for reform any longer. They are counting on us to get this done. They are looking to us for leadership. And we must not let them down. We will pass reform that lowers cost, promotes choice, and provides coverage that every American can count on. And we will do it this year. And with that, I’ll take your questions…. – PBS Newshour, 7-22-09
  • Excerpts of Obama’s Remarks Released – NYT, 7-22-09
  • Obama says healthcare overhaul needed to curb deficits: “If we do not control these costs, we will not be able to control our deficit,” he said after another day when leaders in Congress struggled to find common ground on the cost and scope of a healthcare plan, Obama’s top legislative priority.
    “We are now seeing broad agreement thanks to the work that was done over the last few days. So even though we still have a few issues to work out, what’s remarkable at this point is not how far we have left to go — it’s how far we have already come,” he said. – Reuters, 7-22-09
  • Obama Criticizes Arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates : President Obama bluntly accused the police of acting “stupidly” by arresting the Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. last week after an officer had established that Mr. Gates had not broken into his own home in Cambridge, Mass. Mr. Obama stopped short of accusing the police department of racial profiling, as Mr. Gates has done. But during a prime-time White House news conference that was otherwise largely devoted to health care, Mr. Obama weighed in full bore on the Gates case and suggested that the police should never have arrested him. “There’s a long history in this country of African-Americans being stopped disproportionately by the police,” Mr. Obama said. “It’s a sign of how race remains a factor in this society.” – NYT, 7-22-09
  • “If they try to fix our healthcare system like they’ve tried to rescue our economy, I think we’re in really, really big trouble,” said House Republican Leader John Boehner. – Reuters, 7-22-09
  • Inside Blue Dogs’ W.H. meeting: Following their meeting with POTUS Tuesday afternoon, members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee … … and Blue Dog Coalition spoke with reporters at the White House. “We had a very constructive meeting,” Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said. “Members of our Energy and Commerce Committee who are also members of the Blue Dogs had great concern on cost of the legislation … it’s not just theirs but ours as well.” – Politico, 7-21-09
  • REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT ON HEALTH CARE AND THE SENATE VOTE ON F-22 FUNDING Rose Garden: But I reject the notion that we have to waste billions of taxpayer dollars on outdated and unnecessary defense projects to keep this nation secure. That’s why I’ve taken steps to greatly reduce no-bid defense contracts. That’s why I’ve signed overwhelmingly bipartisan legislation to limit cost overruns on weapons systems before they spiral out of control. And that’s why I’m grateful that the Senate just voted against an additional $1.75 billion to buy F-22 fighter jets that military experts and members of both parties say we do not need….
    We’ve agreed that our health reform bill will extend coverage and include unprecedented insurance protections for the American people. Under each of these bills, you won’t be denied coverage if you’ve got a preexisting medical condition. You won’t lose your health care if you change jobs, if you lose your job, or if you start a business. And you won’t lose your insurance if you get sick…. – White House, 7-21-09
  • REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT ON HEALTH CARE Children’s Hospital Washington, D.C.: …And we can’t afford the politics of delay and defeat when it comes to health care. Not this time. Not now. There are too many lives and livelihoods at stake. There are too many families who will be crushed if insurance premiums continue to rise three times as fast as wages. There are too many businesses that will be forced to shed workers, scale back benefits, or drop coverage unless we get spiraling health care costs under control. – White House, 7-20-09

HISTORIANS’ COMMENTS

The President speaks on health reform

  • JAMES MORONE, Brown University “As Deadline Nears, Obama Steps Up Health Care Push”: With the days ticking down until President Obama’s target date for a deal on health care reform, the White House is pushing to convince the public and Congress that swift action is necessary
    We’ve been doing this since 1935. Harry Truman ran on this in 1948, that great come-from-behind victory, and he encountered the exact same thing. We always have these enormous problems. And what’s so striking is how similar the kinds of debates are. Just one quick example: In every scene in this movie, we’ve had the same idea of people coming in and saying, “Look, we just cannot afford this.” So that’s a very old story. Lyndon Johnson, when he passed Medicare, we just found some newly released tapes of him complaining to newly elected Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts that those fools in the budget office went and projected the costs of Medicare six years down the line. “I’m losing votes.” Bottom line: If we had had good cost projections for Medicare, we believe it would never have won…. Accurate projections. Actually, accurate projections for the costs down the line. LBJ might have known, but he managed to hide them….
    It’s hard for a number of different reasons. For the profession itself, what we’re doing is taking — every year, we’re spending a little bit more of our economy to health care. Anything that threatens to stop that is going to gore an awful lot of sacred cows. Secondly, this is a major battle for control of the high ground in American politics, and everybody in Washington knows that. If Obama gets this through, Roosevelt fails, Truman failed, Carter, Clinton, they all failed. If Obama wins, he’s on an extraordinary roll. If he’s defeated, this is a major defeat for him and a victory for the Republicans. Combine the sheer difficulty and the politics, and you’ve got a recipe for trouble….
    Yes, there are many lessons, and one goes directly to what Amy just said, and that’s the lesson of speed. Lyndon Johnson gathered all of his advisers in a room after his huge 1964 landslide victory — second largest in Democratic Party history — and he said, “Look, every day I lose power. Every day I lose votes. You’ve got to get Medicare fast.” In that sense, Obama has learned an important lesson from history when he says, “Do it by August.” …Eevery day, he loses a little bit of the luster. And six months from now, you know what “Nightline’s” going to be covering: the midterm elections. That’s going to make it almost impossible. One lesson: speed….
    What he needs, what he has to find a way to get is a movement going. Look, this is very scary for Congress… for a lot of congresspeople, particularly in swing districts. If they don’t get a whole lot of Tweets, a whole lot of e-mails, a whole lot of phone calls, this isn’t going to go anywhere. So what Obama needs to do more than getting into the weeds or answering critics is generating excitement that translates into stuff in congressional in-boxes. Without that, it’s never going to win. – PBS Newshour, 7-22-09
  • Julian Zelizer “LBJ Arm-Twisting? Not Really Obama’s Style”: Obama, says Julian Zelizer, a political historian who teaches at Princeton University, “does need a little LBJ in him.”…
    Roosevelt was masterful, Zelizer says, at “living with what was possible instead of what was perfect. For many liberals, this was frustrating.” By using that strategy of relentlessness and occasional compromise, Zelizer says, Roosevelt was able to push through social safety-net legislation. “It paled in compared to Europe’s social security plan,” he says. But it was pretty progressive for the American system at the time.
    Zelizer does say that Obama needs to avoid the pitfalls of Johnson. And of Jimmy Carter. “President Carter had more trouble working with Congress,” Zelizer says. “He had no relationship with Capitol Hill.”
    In the end, Zelizer says, Carter was “too esoteric.” He had great vision when it came to a national energy policy or the SALT II nuclear arms talks. “But he just couldn’t put it together for legislation or the treaty,” Zelizer says. “He just couldn’t articulate his vision.”
    Using his own methods, relying on his own political personality, will Obama be able to sway enough people to get the necessary votes to achieve 1965-style results with 2009 technology? “The jury,” Zelizer says, “is still out.” – NPR, 7-21-09
  • Ted Widmer “LBJ Arm-Twisting? Not Really Obama’s Style”: Plus, the two men “are pretty far apart in most people’s minds, and certainly in [Obama's],” says Ted Widmer, a fellow at the New America Foundation, a Washington-based think tank. Between 1997 and 2001, Widmer served in the Clinton White House as a foreign policy speechwriter and senior adviser to the president.
    “There have never been stories of personal intimidation from Obama,” Widmer says, “and most of the persuasion arts that are used at the moment deploy indirect forms — texting, e-mail, phone messages — rather than in-your-face, LBJ-style orders from on high.” – NPR, 7-21-09
  • Allan Lichtman “LBJ Arm-Twisting? Not Really Obama’s Style”: Johnson as role model for Obama poses other problems, as well. Presidential historian Allan Lichtman, who teaches at American University, points out that “despite his mastery of the legislative process and enormous harvest of domestic legislation,” Johnson is “a tainted example because of Vietnam.”
    Lichtman and others also suggest alternative role models for Obama — former presidents who knew how to negotiate the shoals of Congress yet didn’t get mired in bad choices.
    Perhaps the best beacon would be Woodrow Wilson, Lichtman says. “Wilson was a major legislative craftsman, with deep knowledge of how Congress worked from his studies as a political scientist. He revived the tradition, dormant since Jefferson, of giving the State of the Union speech in person to Congress as another means of outlining and pushing his agenda.”
    During this first two years, Lichtman says, “Wilson succeeded in reforming the protective tariff, establishing the Federal Reserve System. He gained passing major antitrust legislation, a graduated income tax, and limitations on the use of court injunctions against labor unions.” – NPR, 7-21-09
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