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Obama pitches healthcare in Sunday talk show blitz

He says his message on reform is not 'breaking through.' His critics suggest it's not a communications problem: People just don't like the president's plan.

September 21, 2009|Mark Silva

WASHINGTON — Acknowledging that he hasn't persuaded the American public and Congress to support sweeping changes to healthcare, President Obama offered a humbling admission Sunday: His message is sometimes not "breaking through."

"I think there have been times where I have said, 'I've got to step up my game in terms of talking to the American people about issues like healthcare,' " he said during an unprecedented spree of appearances on five Sunday television news shows.

Asked if he had lost control of the healthcare debate at those times, the president said: "Well, not so much lost control, but where I've said to myself, somehow I'm not breaking through."

The president's Sunday blitz -- which skipped Fox News Channel -- marked yet another effort to explain to a divided public why he is trying to remake the healthcare system. Taped on Friday at the White House, his appearances on ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and Univision followed a prime-time address to a joint session of Congress this month and a series of town-hall-style appearances and rallies across the country aimed at reviving the fervor for "change" that propelled Obama into the White House. He also plans to be on David Letterman's "Late Show" tonight, a first for a sitting president.

The media venture underscores the administration's confidence that Obama is the best salesman for his policies.

But his critics suggested that people had heard the president's message -- they just weren't buying it.

"Actually, he has broken through. People don't like what he is selling," said Alex Castellanos, a Washington-based Republican consultant and campaign media expert. "This is not a communications problem."

The phalanx of TV appearances presents a risk for the president, as does his broader strategy of staking so much political capital on a healthcare overhaul, said Doug Schoen, a Democratic pollster who served President Clinton.

"If he doesn't get a bill, he's been on five Sunday shows, David Letterman, and, if he doesn't move the needle, it's hard to see how he wins. And the midterm elections become very problematic" for his party, Schoen said. "He is doubling down, betting the ranch and putting it all on the line on the basis that his communications skills are superior and that he can carry the day."

With the proposed healthcare overhaul, Obama and supporters in the Democratic-controlled Congress are promising better health insurance for Americans who already have it and coverage for millions lacking it -- without raising taxes on anyone who earns less than $250,000 a year. They are also aiming to rein in healthcare costs that are consuming a large part of the family budget and, through Medicare and Medicaid, the federal budget.

"I don't think I've promised too much at all," Obama said on CBS' "Face the Nation." "Everyone recognizes this is a problem. Everyone recognizes the current path we're on is unsustainable. . . . We know that standing still is not an option."

Republicans are not the only ones resisting Obama's plans. So are some lawmakers in his own party.

Many liberal Democrats insist that any healthcare overhaul must include a "public option" -- a government-run health insurance plan to compete with private companies. That's anathema to Republicans and many conservative Democrats.

House Democratic leaders say they cannot pass a bill without a government-run insurance program, but it appears that the Senate cannot pass a bill that includes one.

Obama insists he has not given up on the public option, even though he has said that it's negotiable.

"I absolutely do not believe that it's dead," he said on Spanish-language Univision. "I think that it's something that we can still include as part of a comprehensive reform effort."

The president calmly addressed the fervor of recent protests and the public debate, suggesting that much of the vitriol aimed at him stems from a natural fear of "big changes" in government -- and not, as former President Carter has suggested, because opponents cannot accept the fact that an African American is president.

"Unfortunately, we've got . . . a 24-hour news cycle where what gets you on the news is controversy," Obama said on NBC's "Meet the Press." "What gets you on the news is the extreme statement. The easiest way to get 15 minutes on the news, or your 15 minutes of fame, is to be rude."

Speaking about his political opponents' stance on healthcare, Obama said on Univision's "Al Punto Con Jorge Ramos": "I think that the opposition has made a decision. They are just not going to support anything for political reasons. . . . There's some people who just cynically want to defeat me politically."

The president has called for a civil debate, and analysts said his steadfastness and calmness set a certain tone.

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