President Obama continued his full-court press today for sweeping healthcare legislation, holding a roundtable discussion with providers at the Children's National Medical Center in Washington.
Trying to get healthcare overhaul back on track, Obama took a populist bent, asserting that big insurers and pharmaceutical firms and other special interests are reaping huge benefits from the existing healthcare system, while American families struggle.
Unless healthcare is reformed, he said, families will pay more and more of their income for less and less care.
Obama also took on his Republican opponents, incredulously citing South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint's remark last week that a defeat on healthcare would be Obama's "Waterloo" -- undermining his presidency.
"This isn't about me, this isn't about politics, this about a healthcare system that is breaking," the president said
He said the "politics of delay and defeat" should not be allowed to succeed -- and the nation needs a healthcare overhaul this year.
"Let's fight our way through the politics of the moment," he said.
"We've talked this problem to death," he added. (His full remarks are below.)
UPDATE: Senator Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate, added his criticism of Obama, saying that the healthcare push looks a lot like the push for the $787 billion stimulus package, which he asserted has been a failure.
“By any standard upon which it was sold to us, not that it would do some good two or three years from now, but now, by that standard it has been a failure,” McConnell said this afternoon on Fox News Channel. “People feel like they got burned on the Stimulus vote, there were a few people that voted for it who feel like they got burned. A lot of the rest of us are saying, you know, we told you this might not have been the right thing to do.”
“The American people are now looking at this healthcare proposal and are saying this sounds a lot like what we were just told a few months ago on the stimulus, 'You got to get it done tomorrow or bad things are going to happen,' ” he added. “There is suspicion that this is a do over from the stimulus that we had just a few months ago, being sold to us as something we have to do immediately, that may not work.”
But as various versions of the bill wend their way through Congress, Obama is spending most of his time on the defensive against critics of the reform proposals even as he stakes the early success of his presidency on passing healthcare this year.
Perhaps for good reason -- a new Washington Post/ABC News poll published today showed that the public's approval of Obama's handling of the issue has dropped below the 50 percent threshold for the first time.
In the poll, 49 percent approve of his healthcare proposals and 44 percent disapprove. The approval number is down 8 percentage points from April and the disapproval number is up 15 percentage points as more attention -- and more criticism -- has focused on the proposals.
The poll also found that the president's approval ratings on other major issues, such as the economy and the federal budget deficit, have also slipped in recent months. His overall approval rating is higher than his marks on specific issues -- 59 percent positive and 37 negative -- but it's still the first time since he took office that his overall rating dropped below 60 percent in the Post-ABC poll, and is down six percentage points from just last month. The survey, conducted July 15-18, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
UPDATE: A second poll out today also found public skepticism about Obama's healthcare plan.
In the USA Today/Gallup survey, conducted Friday through Sunday, Americans by 50 percent to 44 percent disapprove of his handling of healthcare, and by 49 percent to 47 percent disapprove of his handling of the economy.
Sensing some vulnerability, Republicans are on the attack.
GOP Chairman Michael Steele, in a speech this morning at the National Press Club, accused Obama of "risky experimentation" with his healthcare proposals and asserted that Democrats want to impose government-run healthcare.
Asked whether the plans amounted to socialism, Steele said yes.
"Many Democrats outside of the Obama-Pelosi-Reid-Waxman cabal know that voters won't stand for these kinds of foolish prescriptions for our health care. We do too. That's why Republicans will stop at nothing to remind voters about the risky experimentation going on in Washington," Steele said, according to the Associated Press.
Obama wants a public insurance option to compete with private insurers and, he says, keep them honest, but has repeatedly said he does not favor a government-run health care system.
Republicans are backing up Steele's criticisms with a new TV ad that derides Obama's economic stimulus plan as a "massive spending experiment" that has failed to produce jobs. Featuring an ominous voiceover and images of children, the 30-second spot warns that his healthcare plan would "risk everything."
UPDATE: Democratic National Committee chairman Tim Kaine this afternoon issued a lengthy response to Steele, accusing Republicans of being far more interested in scoring political points than helping Americans with their healthcare.
“This morning, Chairman Steele delivered a speech announcing a ‘new’ Republican campaign against the President’s efforts to reform America’s broken health care system. Republican opposition to health care reform, however, is anything but new. In his speech, Chairman Steele spoke at length about the potential risks to reforming our failed health care system. It's sad, but not surprising, that the Republican Party, which for so long has supported the very policies and vested interests that helped get us to this crisis point, are unable to recognize the that the real risk is to do nothing at all, as they propose," Kaine said.
“Despite the crisis that confronts American families, the GOP continues to argue for the status quo on behalf of the special interests. If we do nothing as the Republican ‘Party of NO’ would have us do, we not only will ensure more of the same, but guarantee a growing crisis that will put a burden on our children that they will never overcome," Kaine added.
“It was also stunning - and sad - to hear that Chairman Steele agreed with Senator DeMint's comments that stopping health care reform would ‘break’ the President politically. What's ‘broken’ is a health care system where costs continue to explode, working families can't afford their premiums, small business can't compete, and where the Republican Party is interested in ensuring that we do nothing about these problems purely for their own political gain."
While Republican attacks are to expected, even some of Obama's allies are not happy with the direction the healthcare legislation is going.
Some Democrats, notably Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, want to tax the most generous employer-provided health benefits -- an idea Obama hasn't endorsed. But in an op-ed piece in Sunday's Washington Post, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney rails against the proposal.
Unions oppose the idea, arguing that employees have given up salary increases over the years and accepted better health benefits in return.
"Persistent misconceptions about the 'tax-favored treatment' of employer-sponsored coverage are that it (1) leads to overconsumption of health services and (2) favors the wealthy," Sweeney's piece says.
"With rising health costs burdening businesses and families alike, does anyone really believe that employers or workers lack incentive to hold down costs? The tax treatment of health benefits no more contributes to high health-care costs than the deduction for mortgage interest is responsible for housing costs. Clearly, both are affected by far more complex factors."
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I just first of all want to thank the Children's Hospital for hosting us today. And I want to thank the participants, Joseph Wright, Brian Jacobs, Yewande Johnson, Michael Knappe, Regina Hartridge, and Kathleen Quigley.
I just had the opportunity to talk to doctors, nurses, physician’s assistants, and administrators at this extraordinary institution. We spoke about some of the strains on our health care system and some of the strains our health care system places on parents with sick children.
We spoke about the amount of time and money wasted on insurance-driven bureaucracy. We spoke about the growing number of Americans who are uninsured and underinsured. We spoke about what's wrong with a system where women can't always afford maternity care and parents can't afford checkups for their kids, and end up seeking treatment in emergency rooms like the ones here at Children's. We spoke about the fact that it's very hard even for families who have health insurance to access primary care physicians and pediatricians. In a city like Washington, D.C., you've got all the doctors in one half of the city, very few doctors in the other half of the city. And part of that has to do with just the manner in which reimbursement is taking place and the disincentives for doctors, nurses, and physicians assistants in caring for those who are most in need.
And we spoke about where we're headed if we once again delay and defer health insurance reform.
These health care professionals are doing heroic work each and every day to save the lives of America's children. But they're being forced to fight through a system that works better for drug companies and insurance companies than for the American people that all these wonderful health professionals entered their profession to serve.
And over the past decade, premiums have doubled in America; out-of-pocket costs have shot up by a third; deductibles have continued to climb. And yet, even as America's families have been battered by spiraling health care costs, health insurance companies and their executives have reaped windfall profits from a broken system.
Now, we've talked this problem to death, year after year. But unless we act -- and act now -- none of this will change. Just a quick statistic I heard about this hospital: Just a few years ago, there were approximately 50,000 people coming into the emergency room. Now they've got 85,000. There's been almost a doubling of emergency room care in a relatively short span of time, which is putting enormous strains on the system as a whole. That's the status quo, and it's only going to get worse.
If we do nothing, then families will spend more and more of their income for less and less care. The number of people who lose their insurance because they've lost or changed jobs will continue to grow. More children will be denied coverage on account of asthma or a heart condition. Jobs will be lost, take-home pay will be lower, businesses will shutter, and we will continue to waste hundreds of billions of dollars on insurance company boondoggles and inefficiencies that add to our financial burdens without making us any healthier.
So the need for reform is urgent and it is indisputable. No one denies that we're on an unsustainable path. We all know there are more efficient ways of doing it. We just -- I spoke to the chief information officer here at the hospital and he talked about some wonderful ways in which we could potentially gather up electronic medical records and information for every child not just that comes to this hospital but in the entire region, and how much money could be saved and how the health of these kids could be improved. But it requires an investment.
Now, there are some in this town who are content to perpetuate the status quo, are in fact fighting reform on behalf of powerful special interests. There are others who recognize the problem, but believe -- or perhaps, hope -- that we can put off the hard work of insurance reform for another day, another year, another decade.
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." Think about that. This isn't about me. This isn't about politics. This is about a health care system that is breaking America's families, breaking America's businesses, and breaking America's economy.
And we can't afford the politics of delay and defeat when it comes to health care. Not this time. Not now. There are too many lives and livelihoods at stake. There are too many families who will be crushed if insurance premiums continue to rise three times as fast as wages. There are too many businesses that will be forced to shed workers, scale back benefits, or drop coverage unless we get spiraling health care costs under control.
The reforms we seek would bring greater competition, choice, savings, and inefficiencies [sic] to our health care system, and greater stability and security to America's families and businesses. For the average American, it will mean lower costs, more options, and coverage you can count on. It will save you and your family money, if we have a more efficient health care system. You won't have to worry about being priced out of the market. You won't have to worry about one illness leading your family into financial ruin. You won't have to worry that you won't be able to afford treatment for a child who gets sick.
We can -- and we must -- make all these reforms, and we can do it in a way that does not add to our deficits over the next decade. I've said this before. Let me repeat: The bill I sign must reflect my commitment and the commitment of Congress to slow the growth of health care costs over the long run. That's how we can ensure that health care reform strengthens our national -- our nation's fiscal health at the same time.
Now, we always knew that passing health care reform wouldn't be easy. We always knew that doing what is right would be hard. There's just a tendency towards inertia in this town. I understand that as well as anybody. But we're a country that chooses the harder right over the easier wrong. That's what we have to do this time. We have to do that once more.
So let's fight our way through the politics of the moment. Let's pass reform by the end of this year. Let's commit ourselves to delivering our country a better future -- and that future will be seen in a place like Children's Hospital, when young people are getting the care that they deserve and they need, when they need it, and we don't have an overcrowded emergency room just putting enormous burdens on this excellent institution. I think we can accomplish that, but we're going to have to do some work over the next few weeks and the next few months.
Thank you very much everyone
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.