From NBC's Athena Jones
After weeks of struggling to break through the chanting throngs of health-care overhaul opponents at town halls across the country and to correct inaccurate information about his proposals, President Obama finally seemed to hit his stride Thursday when it came to explaining his goals in plain, brief, to-the-point language.
The administration has had a tough time this month selling its "change" message when it comes to health care in the face of strong, organized, and sometimes rowdy opposition. As negotiations on legislation stalled in Congress ahead of the August recess, misconceptions began to take root among voters who worried about what a comprehensive revamp of an industry that represents one-sixth of the economy would mean for them.
The president's town halls last week in New Hampshire, Montana, and Colorado were part of an effort to explain to the American people how they would be helped by a revamped system, but it was during an interview today at the White House with talk radio host Michael Smerconish that Obama gave perhaps his strongest, clearest defense to date of his health-care plan. He continued his push with a Q&A session at which he sought to rally a group of Organizing for American volunteers.
"We all know this has been an emotional debate," he told supporters assembled at the Democratic National Committee headquarters on Capitol Hill. "We've seen tempers flare, accusations have been hurled, and sometimes it seems like one loud voice can drown out all the civil, sensible voices out there. But remember one thing: Nothing's more powerful than millions of voices calling for change. That's how we won this election. You know this."
Yesterday, the president called on religious leaders to help him "spread the facts" about his proposals and fight the "deceptive attacks" of opponents. Today at the DNC, Obama slammed the media for not correcting -- and even spreading -- the kind of misinformation that has riled up critics, such as promoting the idea of rationed care, death panels, and benefits for illegal immigrants.
"We know where these lies are coming from," he said to laughter. "I don't think it's any secret. You know, if you just flick channels you'll -- and then stop on certain ones of them then you'll see, you know, you'll see who's propagating this stuff and so all we can do is just keep on pushing the truth."
But it was in his radio interview with Smerconish -- where the president tended toward simple and concise language rather than long, professorial discourse -- where he seemed most effective in laying out a clear case for his proposed health-care exchange, a key element of his plan.
When asked whether he would urge members of Congress to force federal employees to join a public plan, Obama explained that the large number of people in the federal workforce meant they could get the best rates possible from insurance companies, all of which want to do business with the federal government. He said a health insurance exchange would do the same, but stressed the matter of choice -- assuring listeners that no one would be forced into any plan.
"What we have said is: Let's make a public option one choice of many choices that are available to people who are joining the exchange, and I see nothing wrong with potentially having that public option as one option for federal employees, as well," he said.
Obama went on to highlight two private insurers to drive home the point.
"But the important thing that I think I have to make absolutely clear: Nobody would be obligated to choose the public option," he said. "If you went on that Web site and you said, you know what, Aetna or Blue Cross/Blue Shield are offering a good deal and I would rather choose that plan than the public plan, you'd be perfectly free to do so. Nobody would be saying you are obligated to go into a public plan."
The toughest question the president got during the radio show was from a self-proclaimed supporter who was "ticked off" at him for being "weak knee-ed" -- too willing to compromise with Republicans on health care, even though Democrats have control of both houses of Congress.
The president said he still hoped to craft a bipartisan bill and hailed three Republican senators -- Olympia Snowe from Maine; Chuck Grassley for Iowa and Mike Enzi from Wyoming -- for negotiating with Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee, compliments he echoed later at the DNC, where he sought to convince his supporters he would not compromise too much.
"We're going to just continue to wait to see if they can get a product done. But at some point in the process, there's going to have to be a conclusion that either they can get a bill done or they can't get a bill done," he said. "And my commitment to the American people is to get a good product, which will include Republican ideas. But I have no control over what the other side decides is their political strategy and my obligation to the American people says we're going to get this done one way or another."
At both events today, Obama argued that one of the challenges to bipartisanship on this issue was a political decision made by the Republican leadership, making a direct reference to the Clinton administration's failed health care effort.
"I think early on a decision was made by the Republican leadership that said, 'Look, let's not give them a victory and maybe we can have a replay of 1993-94 when Clinton came in; he failed on health care and then we won in the midterm elections and we got the majority,'" Obama said on Smerconish's radio show. "And I think there's some folks who are taking a page out of that playbook, but this shouldn't be a political issue."
The president seemed to miss an opportunity on the radio show to explain just how the federal government would manage the logistics of a public option when one caller on the radio show asked why the American people should trust the government to handle health care when it could not disburse Cash for Clunker rebates in a timely manner. Obama's answer focused on the extra staff that had been hired to prevent fraud in the auto program rather than how the government would do better with health care.