By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 26, 2010; A15
IOWA CITY -- An exuberant President Obama dared his Republican critics Thursday to campaign this fall on a platform to repeal his health-care law, urging them to "go for it."
"If they want to have that fight, we can have it," Obama told an audience of 3,200 people packed into the University of Iowa Field House.
"I don't believe that the American people are going to put the insurance industry back in the driver's seat," he said. "We've already been there. We're not going back. This country is moving forward."
And so is the White House, which had hardly finished celebrating the health-care victory before shifting into high gear on a new nuclear arms reduction treaty, aggressive regulation of the financial industry, changes to the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, and planning for the possibility of another Supreme Court vacancy.
The White House is eager to return to a focus on jobs and the economy by casting Republicans as the party standing with big banks and financial institutions. On Friday, officials plan to announce a new effort to help the unemployed with their mortgage payments as part of a broader effort to address the continuing foreclosure crisis.
With the health-care victory in hand, the president will also be freer to pursue his foreign policy goals. On Friday, the White House will formally announce that the United States and Russia have reached agreement on a new treaty to reduce the stockpile of deployed strategic nuclear weapons. The agreement is a key step toward Obama's campaign promise of a world without nuclear weapons.
Obama's appearance here was his first outside Washington since he signed health-care legislation into law, perhaps his most important domestic achievement since taking office 14 months ago. His half-hour speech served as the unofficial opening of his election-year campaign on behalf of that signature issue and, by extension, his anxious party.
Obama characterized the measure as both a historic achievement and a "middle-of-the-road" reform, implicitly offering Democrats a formula for explaining the law to skeptical voters in November. He also attempted to lower expectations over how quickly Americans will see the effect of a law that will be phased in over four years.
Interrupted often by applause, Obama evoked some of the same populist themes he used in the weeks leading up to the health-care vote. He sounded frustrated in those appearances, as he railed against Republican recalcitrance, special-interest lobbying and the political culture of Washington that he says treats public policy as a sporting event.
But on Thursday he electrified a college-town crowd with a winner's bravado, signaling to congressional Democrats that their success in passing health care is something to run on, not away from.
"From this day forward, all of the cynics, all the naysayers -- they're going to have to confront the reality of what this reform is and what it isn't," Obama said.
Obama won Iowa in 2008, but the political climate here has turned sharply against Democrats amid rising unemployment and anti-Washington sentiment.
As a long-shot presidential candidate nearly three years ago, Obama came to Iowa City to outline his proposal for health care, an issue that at the time appeared to belong to his rival for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Far behind in opinion polls, Obama brashly promised to secure reform legislation in his first term.
Although the legislation that eventually passed varies significantly from what he originally outlined, Obama told the crowd Thursday that "that promise was finally fulfilled."
"This historic change did not begin in Washington. It began in places just like this, with Americans just like you," Obama said. "And now this is your victory."
But the year-long health-care debate has divided the country and the Democratic Party. The political rifts were apparent inside and outside the arena.
Rival groups of demonstrators gathered on campus hours before Obama's arrival, holding signs that read "Destroyer in Chief: Stop Socialism" and "Finally Someone Who Cares About the Already Born." The latter was a reference to a deep divide in Congress over the best way to provide insurance coverage without federally funding abortions.
Inside the arena, a heckler shouted, "What about the public option?"
Liberal Democrats favored the creation of a government-run insurance option to compete with policies offered by private companies, but the Senate would not support it.
"That's not in it," Obama responded.
"Why not?" the heckler yelled back.
"Because we couldn't get it through Congress, that's why," Obama said, adding later, "Thirty-two million people are going to have health insurance because of this legislation. That's what this work is about."
"This legislation is not perfect, as we just heard," Obama said, drawing laughter. "But what this is is a historic step to enshrine the principle that everybody gets health-care coverage in this country. Every single person."