Obama Defends Cost of Agenda

White House Effort Pleases Allies

Posted June 24, 2009 at 6:47pm

Congressional Democrats say they are pleased with how the White House is handling Republican attacks on the costs of health care reform and other Democratic priorities, saying President Barack Obama has begun to effectively convey a message that these initiatives will not cause the deficit to get out of hand.

House Democratic aides say Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) in recent weeks have spoken to the president and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel about their concerns over the GOP’s escalating attacks centered on the costs of Democratic proposals — and that both leaders are satisfied that Obama is dealing with it.

White House officials say Obama’s message is nothing new and that he was aware of the vulnerability of his proposals to such charges since the beginning and has consistently emphasized — and believes in — a commitment to fiscal discipline. He has long said his health care proposals must be paid for and emphasized reforms that will help reduce the cost of health care.

But some Congressional Democrats regarded as anemic and even gimmicky earlier White House efforts to display deficit restraint, pointing to moves like the early May announcement that $17 billion in savings would be achieved by cutting programs.

Republicans quickly pointed out that the figure was a drop in the bucket and waged a PR offensive to get the initiative laughed out of town.

But Democrats are gratified by Obama’s relentless focus on using health reform to reduce costs and on paying for any public insurance option with cuts in other areas and tax increases.

“They understand the concern,— a senior Democratic House aide said of the White House.

Republicans in recent weeks have seized on polling showing growing voter concerns on the deficit to try to sink Obama’s health care plan and paint the Democrats and the White House as preparing to radically increase the nation’s debt.

Several recent polls have shown strong concern among the public about keeping a handle on the deficit, even at the expense of spending to boost economic recovery. The outlier, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, showed voters prioritizing deficit control over quickly healing the economy by 58 percent to 35 percent

The ramifications of such polling is rippling through the Democratic ranks and resulted in the paring back of health care plans in the Senate, according to longtime Democratic strategist Steve Elmendorf. Elmendorf said that Democrats were taken aback by a Congressional Budget Office score of a draft Senate Finance proposal at $1.6 trillion, which led to efforts to trim the bill.

“The CBO number was definitely a sticker shock,— Elmendorf said.

The GOP assault has been particularly acute on the health care front. The government-run insurance option backed by Obama is regularly slammed as a move toward socialism that will drain the government’s coffers. Republicans regularly question the efficacy of the stimulus passed earlier this year and the Democrats’ overall approach on spending.

Republicans in recent days have released a flood of statements like a June 17 release by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) that states: “Americans Want Health Reform, Not Another Tidal Wave of Debt.— The Senate Republicans’ Web site features a debt clock logging the moment-to-moment increase in the nation’s arrears.

Democrats were pleased by Obama’s remarks on health care during his Tuesday press conference, when he emphasized cost control and barely mentioned the goals of increasing coverage or creating the government insurance option.

“Our top priority has to be to control costs,— Obama said.

“The feeling is they recognize [the GOP attacks] and are definitely trying to deliver a strong message and push back on it, as are we,— said one Democratic leadership aide.

But White House officials note that Obama has repeatedly talked fiscal discipline since gaining office — even to the extent of holding a fiscal discipline “summit— at the White House.

“Maybe [Congressional Democrats] like the overall message within the health care context, but it is not a new message from the president,— said one senior White House official.

But many Democrats particularly liked an announcement earlier this month embracing statutory pay-as-you-go rules to offset new mandatory spending.

One House Democratic leadership aide said recent White House efforts were not just a response to Republicans but to genuine concerns Obama and his aides have about deficits and about how lenders like China and the markets generally were reacting to the prospects for higher deficits.

“The political factors have heightened a sense that was already there, and that’s something that has been communicated directly by the president, Rahm Emanuel, and others to the Congressional leadership,— said one House Democratic leadership aide.

Obama aides have also raised the profile on their efforts to tout stimulus projects that they say will boost the economy.

“The president has discussed, in terms of the stimulus, that the recession and the economy would be worse without the Recovery Act — which would have exacerbated the deficit,— said another White House official.