Walking out of the gates of the White House last night following President Obama’s news conference, it was something of a surprised to find a number of my colleagues discussing something other than the main topic of the session, health care.
But Steve Coffman of the Cleveland Plain Dealer was in our cluster of reporters and he was, of course, the “Steve” who finally got his question in after the President called his name but looked at another “Steve” — Steve Thomma of McClatchey News.
“Hey, the Plain Dealer got some recognition, McClatchey’s got to be happy, and [the Chicago Tribune’s] Lynn Sweet had to wait a bit but she got her question in,” said Coffman about the mix-up that closed the latest Obama meeting with the press. “So it all worked out fine.”
Whether the overall message of Barack Obama’s nationally-televised news conference works out as well as the “two Steves” glitch remains to be seen. With nine days to go before Congress is scheduled to adjourn for the summer, the President made what is likely to be his last big push for lawmakers to enact his comprehensive health care reform package. Obama read his opening statement from the now-familiar “jumbo-prompter.” In one hour, he took ten questions (the least at any Obama White House press conference so far) and all but three dealt with the health care issue.
Much of Obama’s opening remarks and lengthy answers were clearly designed to reply to criticisms of the health care package now making its way through the House. Once again, Obama reminded reporters and television viewers that Americans spend “more on health care than any other nation” and that “the skyrocketing cost of Medicare and Medicaid were the consequences of inaction.”
Obama set himself up for further argument with House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence (Ind.) and other opponents of his package by insisting its enactment “will not add to the deficit.” Two days earlier, Pence opened a press conference denouncing the Obama package by citing a study by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office that the reform measure would indeed increase the deficit by $239 billion over the next decade.
And, as Obama has in his four previous public appearances this week, he made a strong pitch for Congress to enact reform before it leaves town. To my colleague David Alexander’s query as to “why the rush?”, Obama replied, “I’m rushed because I get letters every day by families who are getting crushed” under the burden of health care. Sounding every bit like Lyndon Johnson when he pushed Congress to enact Medicare and other Great Society measures in 1964, he added that “if you don’t set deadlines in this town, things don’t happen.”
There is evidence that what Obama says about deadlines in Washington is true. But there is also a case to be made that insistence on action with nine days to go before the congressional recess may well cost him critical support from centrist Democrats (Blue Dogs) in the House. The Blue Dogs are reportedly pleading with the White House for more time to work out problems they have with the package as it is now crafted. Obama’s talk of deadlines and moving quickly because “the stars are aligned” cannot be heartening to this group, many of whom fear retribution at the polls next year if they back Obama on health care.
As to problems he might be having within his own party over the health care issue, Obama explained to Chuck Todd of NBC News that “this is a big issue and a lot of Democrats have different ideas.” He also reached to Republicans in Congress and declared that “you haven’t seen me out there blaming Republicans. . .” although he admitted he was frustrated with what he considered “a little misinformation” on the GOP’s part.
The large group of foreign correspondent were evident in the East Room, but as a colleague from Latin America remarked to me before Obama came out, “He’s not going to handle any foreign policy questions tonight, is he?”
No, he wasn’t going to and he didn’t. With numerous polls nationwide showing voters turning on Obama over the health care issue and the debate on this issue clearing inflicting some wounds in his personal popularity, the President had to focus the televised hour on pushing health care in Congress in a big way. As to whether it will have an impact, all that can be said is we’ll know in a week, won’t we?