By Ceci Connolly and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 10, 2009
Declaring that the "time for bickering is over," President Obama sought to revive the prospects for far-reaching health-care legislation Wednesday night, pressing lawmakers to act this year on his signature domestic priority.
Speaking before a joint session of Congress, Obama put the weight of his office behind a bill that would impose strict new insurance protections, expand government health programs for the working poor and launch pilot projects aimed at reducing medical malpractice lawsuits.
"We did not come here just to clean up crises, we came to build a future," he said in a measured tone that belied the ferocious battles of recent weeks. "I am not the first president to take up this cause, but I am determined to be the last."
Obama delivered the speech at a critical moment in his presidency, as he seeks to simultaneously rally allies and rebut an onslaught of attacks that have taken their toll on his push for reform and his popularity.
In a 47-minute direct appeal to Main Street, Obama laid out his case for a 10-year, $900 billion plan that would build on the current employer-based health-care system with new requirements on individuals and businesses to contribute to the costs of coverage. And on the controversial issue of a new government-run insurance option, he maintained his flexibility, saying, "If you come to me with a serious set of proposals, I will be there to listen."
While he sought to ease the concerns of average Americans, he at times adopted a scolding tone toward critics, dismissing as "a lie, plain and simple" the rumors that "death panels" would be created under Democratic proposals.
In an incident that recalled the raucous town hall meetings of August, Republican Rep. Joe Wilson (S.C.) shouted "You lie" and "Not true" from the chamber floor when Obama said his plans would not cover illegal immigrants or provide funding for abortions. GOP leaders condemned Wilson's comments, and he later apologized.
As he laid out his views for overhauling the nation's health-care system, Obama made clear his belief in the power of government to improve lives, declaring that "the danger of too much government is matched by the perils of too little."
But the speech also reflected the pragmatism of a politician keenly aware of the skepticism of many Americans about empowered bureaucrats.
Urged by allies in recent weeks to be more assertive, Obama condemned what he called the "partisan spectacle that only hardens the disdain many Americans have toward their own government."
After months of leaving the bill-writing to Congress, he for the first time spoke of "my plan," though many questions remained about the details of his proposal.
At the same time, he declined to put an end to bitter intraparty divisions over the question of a government-run insurance option for individuals and small businesses that have difficulty buying coverage in the private market.
Repeating his belief that the approach provides needed competition for private companies, he pledged: "I will not back down on the basic principle that if Americans can't find affordable coverage, we will provide you with a choice."
But he pleaded with his "progressive friends" to remain open to other ideas that could accomplish the same goals. The impact of a public option "shouldn't be exaggerated -- by the left, the right or the media," he said. "It is only one part of my plan."
With the nation in the midst of a recession and two wars, many had counseled Obama to delay the battle over health care, an issue that bedeviled so many of his predecessors and proved to be treacherous politics for fellow Democrat Bill Clinton. But he argued that revamping the nation's $2.3 trillion care-delivery system is central to long-term economic solvency.
Public support for comprehensive health-care reform has dwindled over the past month as opponents dominated the headlines with talk of socialized medicine and accusations that the president was embarking on a "risky experiment" with the nation's medical care.
"Out of this blizzard of charges and counter-charges, confusion has reigned," Obama said.
He fought back against "bogus claims," saying the talk of "death panels" would be "laughable if it weren't so cynical and irresponsible. It is a lie, plain and simple."
Although he at times reached across the partisan divide -- at one point embracing an idea for high-risk insurance pools put forth by his presidential rival, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) -- Obama warned that he will not tolerate the strategy of "death by delay" articulated by some GOP strategists.
"I will not waste time with those who have made the calculation that it's better politics to kill this plan than improve it," he said. "I will not stand by while the special interests use the same old tactics to keep things exactly the way they are. If you misrepresent what's in the plan, we will call you out."
Despite efforts over the past several months to keep insurers at the bargaining table, the president castigated the industry for high executive salaries and practices such as "cherry-picking the healthiest individuals and trying to drop the sickest," "overcharging small businesses who have no leverage" and "jacking up rates."
America's Health Insurance Plans, a trade group, issued a statement afterward, saying the market reforms proposed by Obama and endorsed by the companies "will solve the problem."
Hours before the address, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) announced that he intends to push forward on a measure next week, regardless of whether he has GOP support. Obama said his plan includes one of the key ideas included in the Baucus blueprint, a proposal to tax insurance companies on high-priced policies.
Obama also said he now supports a requirement that all Americans carry insurance, a provision included in every reform bill.
The president plans to convene a Cabinet meeting Thursday, with the focus on health care, and will travel to Minneapolis on Saturday for a public rally.
His address in the House chamber was reminiscent of a speech on health-care reform that President Bill Clinton gave 16 years ago to a joint session of Congress, in which he implored lawmakers to write a "new chapter in the American story." Clinton's reform efforts eventually went down to defeat.
First lady Michelle Obama attended Wednesday night's speech, sitting with Americans who have struggled to keep or afford health care -- symbols, the White House said, of the system's disrepair. Also in the chamber were the relatives of the late senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who wrote shortly before his death that universal coverage was "the cause of my life."
Obama said he received a letter from Kennedy, delivered after his death, in which the senator wrote, "What we face is above all a moral issue; at stake are not just the details of policy, but fundamental principles of social justice and the character of our country."
Before the president stepped to the podium, several Republicans declared themselves open to "common-sense reforms" but blasted what they expected to hear.
Afterward, delivering the Republican response, Rep. Charles Boustany Jr. (La.) said: "It's time to start over on a common-sense, bipartisan plan focused on lowering the cost of health care while improving quality." He added: "Replacing your family's current health care with government-run health care is not the answer. In fact, it'll make health care much more expensive."
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele appeared to dismiss Obama's policy prescriptions, saying after the speech that "the president has proven his ability again to speak very well and say very little."