Obama Heads to the Front to Do Battle on Health-Care Reform

Aides say the president will embark on
Aides say the president will embark on "an aggressive public and private schedule" to fight for health reform. (By Haraz N. Ghanbari -- Associated Press)
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By Michael D. Shear and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, July 20, 2009

Six months into his presidency, Barack Obama may have no greater test of his ability to translate personal popularity into a successful legislative agenda than the upcoming two weeks.

With skepticism about the president's health-care reform effort mounting on Capitol Hill -- even within his own party -- the White House has launched a new phase of its strategy designed to dramatically increase public pressure on Congress: all Obama, all the time.

Senior White House aides promise "an aggressive public and private schedule" for Obama as he presses his case for reform, including a prime-time news conference on Wednesday, a trip to Cleveland, and heavy use of Internet video to broadcast his message beyond the reach of the traditional media.

"Our strategy has been to allow this process to advance to the point where it made sense for the president to take the baton. Now's that time," said senior adviser David Axelrod. "I don't know whether he will Twitter or tweet. But he's going to be very, very visible."

Another senior White House aide added: "It's time to raise the stakes on this."

But even as Obama returns to full-time campaign mode, he is facing increasing calls to show that his presidency can manage the tough, nitty-gritty of lawmaking by cutting deals with his allies to keep his health-care legislation moving in the House and Senate committees.

Conservative Democrats in the House are promising to vote against reform as it now stands, and are preparing two dozen amendments, including measures aimed at lowering the effort's long-term cost. In the Senate, members from both parties are urging the president to break his campaign promise to preserve the tax-free status of health benefits. And a chorus of weary voices from Capitol Hill is urging him to abandon his demand for passage of bills in the House and Senate by Aug. 7.

"I don't think we should be bound by a timetable that isn't realistic," Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), a key swing-vote on health care, told Obama last week as she reminded him that President Lyndon B. Johnson took 1 1/2 years to pass Medicare.

Obama has not officially budged on the timetable, although he and aides notably have not mentioned the August deadline in recent remarks. But he is quietly working with conservative, Blue Dog Democrats in the House on an amendment to create an independent panel to govern Medicare reimbursement rates that could help reverse crippling health-care inflation.

Most difficult for Obama is the pressure to accept a tax on health benefits as a way of financing the massive insurance reform he wants.

Speaking on "Fox News Sunday," White House budget director Peter Orszag would not rule out support for the benefits tax, but he continued to promote Obama's preference for limiting deductions for wealthy taxpayers.

Some Democrats close to the negotiations say they think it is only a matter of time before Obama backs off. One proposal that has emerged would tax insurance companies, as opposed to beneficiaries, and is considered a potential compromise approach that he may be able to embrace.

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