CINCINNATI — In a combative Labor Day speech, President Obama said that the healthcare debate had gone on too long and accused opponents of spreading lies meant to convince Americans that his proposed overhaul would cruelly deny care to the elderly.
The president, speaking at an AFL-CIO picnic, said that "special interests" were determined to "scare the heck out of people."
"I've got a question for all these folks who say, you know, we're going to pull the plug on Grandma and this is all about illegal immigrants -- you've heard all the lies," Obama said. "I've got a question for all those folks: What are you going to do? What's your answer? What's your solution?
"And you know what? They don't have one."
The president seemed eager to recapture some of the enthusiasm that propelled him during his campaign. A prolonged recession has sapped morale, he said, as have pundits who warn that "this isn't working and that's not working."
In the face of a collective "funk," Obama reprised a story from the 2008 campaign about a local official in South Carolina who electrified one of his appearances through a chant of "Fired up; ready to go!" The story was not part of his prepared speech, and the White House later said Obama had launched into it spontaneously. If nothing else, the chant buoyed his aides, who whooped and shouted as the president trotted out the anecdote.
Dressed in shirt-sleeves, the president also gave a preview of what he plans to tell the nation Wednesday in a pivotal address before a joint session of Congress.
He said he wanted to curb rising premiums, bar insurance companies from denying coverage to sick people and create a new marketplace that would offer reasonably priced coverage.
But his overriding message in Cincinnati was that healthcare discussions need to end. In making that case, he was rejecting a Republican suggestion that he "reset" healthcare negotiations and start anew.
With about 20,000 people listening in and outside the pavilion, Obama said "every debate at some point comes to an end. At some point, it's time to decide. At some point, it's time to act. Ohio, it's time to act and get this thing done."
Obama's appearance before the union crowd was a delicate one. In any number of ways, the White House has signaled it was willing to compromise on the "public option" -- a government-run program that would compete with private insurers -- rather than let a healthcare bill that includes such a plan collapse.
But labor officials have made clear that they don't want the president to bargain away the public option.
Last week, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard L. Trumka said the union would not back a healthcare bill without the public option.
The union president, John J. Sweeney, appeared on stage before Obama's arrival and called for a "proud public option to bring down costs and keep the insurance companies honest."
Another guest speaker pressed that point. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) told the crowd that Congress would pass a healthcare bill "with a strong public option."
But in his speech, Obama did little to clarify matters. He reiterated that he favors a public option but stopped short of an unequivocal statement he would veto any healthcare bill that lacks one. "I continue to believe that a public option within the basket of insurance choices would help improve quality and bring down costs," he said.
That was enough to satisfy some union leaders. Trumka said in an interview afterward: "I take him at face value. He said he was going to fight for the public option. We're excited about that, and we're going to help him."
The union crowd gave Obama a warm reception. While leaving the event, however, the president was met by a few dozen protesters. One carried a sign that read: "Government is No Option."
Even as Obama called for an end to the healthcare talks, the debate persisted.
Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) released a plan Monday aimed at shaving the price tag of the healthcare proposals moving through Congress.
Baucus' plan would emphasize cuts in healthcare spending and cost about $900 billion over 10 years -- a savings of $100 billion, according to a source who requested anonymity because the negotiations were ongoing.
At the same time, the plan would preserve many of the elements that Obama has embraced: curbing out-of-pocket costs, protecting people with pre-existing conditions from losing their coverage and barring insurance companies from dropping sick customers.
As part of a bipartisan, six-member group of senators negotiating a healthcare plan, the source said, Baucus has taken into account Republican views in rolling out his new proposal.