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Obama takes healthcare debate and runs with it

The president becomes more involved in rallying the public and Congress behind a healthcare overhaul. Like in a campaign, he will take his case to the American people.

July 21, 2009|Christi Parsons and Noam N. Levey

WASHINGTON — President Obama is becoming more personally invested in rallying the public and Congress behind a healthcare overhaul, even as some Republicans raise the stakes in the debate by claiming that defeating his plan would undermine his presidency.

Leaving little doubt that his popularity and political capital are on the line, Obama has scheduled a stream of public appearances this week to push his top domestic priority -- including television interviews, a town hall meeting and a prime-time news conference set for Wednesday night.

At the same time, the president and his senior aides are intensifying their efforts to prod, cajole and comfort congressional Democrats nervous about the escalating battle.

On Monday, Obama criticized Republicans for putting politics ahead of solving a national problem. During an afternoon trip to a children's hospital, the president seized on a recent statement by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who said healthcare could prove to be Obama's undoing.

"Just the other day, one Republican senator said -- and I'm quoting him now -- 'If we're able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo. It will break him,' " the president told reporters.

"This isn't about me," he said. "This isn't about politics. This is about a healthcare system that is breaking America's families, breaking America's businesses and breaking America's economy."

A new poll that found public approval of Obama's work on healthcare had dropped below 50% for the first time highlighted the political peril. The Washington Post/ABC survey said that a majority of respondents supported the chief elements of a plan put forth by House Democrats, but it also suggested that those voicing strong support and those in strong opposition were about equal.

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele on Monday issued a critical evaluation of Obama's healthcare initiative.

"It is time to hit the pause button on this administration's reckless experiment with America's economy and our healthcare system," he said in an address to the National Press Club.

Asked if the issue presented Republicans with a chance to break the president politically, Steele said he thought that was "a good way to put it," echoing DeMint's comparison to the defeat that ended Napoleon Bonaparte's reign as emperor of France.

Nevertheless, the White House was pushing forward with a strategy developed on the campaign trail last year and honed in the early legislative battles over the federal stimulus package and global warming: Obama will take his case directly to the American people.

The fate of the president's healthcare agenda hinges on his ability to rally enough Democrats to push legislation through the House and Senate. And that is shaping up as a major challenge.

Many Democratic lawmakers are increasingly uneasy about criticism from industry groups and others -- including the Congressional Budget Office -- that the bills being developed in the House and the Senate do not do enough to control healthcare spending.

A block of centrist Blue Dog Democrats in the House has warned that it may fight against creating a government-sponsored insurance plan that would offer Americans an alternative to private insurers. Freshman Democrats have expressed concerns about provisions in the House bill to raise taxes on wealthy Americans. And in the Senate, centrist Democrats and Republicans have urged a slower pace in developing legislation.

Obama privately has prodded senior Democrats to keep healthcare legislation moving, a message he has reinforced in conversations with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), aides briefed on the talks said. And last week, the administration for the first time suggested specific healthcare legislation -- recommending an independent board be created to depoliticize part of the system.

At the same time, the president's team has been working to reassure rank-and-file Democrats worried about criticism of the healthcare bill and signs of sagging public support. There were multiple meetings with lawmakers at the White House last week, capped by a sit-down with 40 freshmen Democrats.

"The president was very receptive," said Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), a leading critic of the plan's tax elements.

Today, Obama is dispatching Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and White House Office of Health Reform director Nancy-Ann DeParle to Capitol Hill to talk with Senate Democrats at their weekly luncheon.

The administration's behind-the-scenes work has been accompanied by a reminder to congressional Democrats that their fates are tied to the president's.

Organizing for America -- a grass-roots project of the Democratic National Committee that was built on Obama's campaign machine -- over the weekend expanded a TV advertising campaign targeting markets in states that are home to centrist Democrats as well as some Republicans.

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