Obama Hits and Misses

Speech Rallies His Backers, Leaves Bruises

Posted September 15, 2009 at 6:46pm

President Barack Obama’s speech to Congress last week galvanized House Democrats to help him push through his health care plan — but lawmakers and their aides say it is increasingly clear the president also left some wounds festering and caused new ones to open.

While Democratic sources say lawmakers are generally pleased with the speech, which they believe boosted morale and possibly public support, they say the president created some new difficulties. Though the address was billed as an effort to provide clarity about Obama’s position, Democrats say that on some issues it has created new confusion.

Some lawmakers are grumbling about Obama’s move to cut the price tag of the legislation to $900 billion over 10 years — which would slice about $100 billion off the cost of legislation being considered in the House. The reduction will force some wrenching decisions, but it comes without clear guidance from the White House on what to cut, Democratic aides say. Furthermore, some lawmakers are upset that Obama did not give public backing to their proposal to pay for the plan in part with a new tax on the rich.

Obama failed to come down clearly on either side of the public insurance option debate — giving the idea a ringing endorsement while suggesting that it need not be included in legislation. His framing of the issue appears to have given at least some Congressional Progressive Caucus members hope that it will remain in the bill even as the idea appears on life support in the Senate.

During a Tuesday meeting with the Democratic Caucus on Capitol Hill, senior Obama adviser David Axelrod again assured the Caucus of the president’s enthusiasm for the public insurance option.

“Generally with regard to the public option and everything else, they haven’t provided a great deal of guidance or follow-up about what these things mean,— said a top House Democratic aide. “Some Members in the Caucus — all they heard is what they wanted to hear.—

White House aides say Obama’s speech provided greater clarity on his positions and helped put the public behind him. They say he is open to considering Democrats’ concerns and their proposals.

Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), who co-chairs the Progressive Caucus, said liberal leaders want more clarity from the White House on the public insurance option and other issues. They are seeking a sit-down with Obama later this week, in part to try to get him to more forcefully back a public option.

[IMGCAP(1)]Axelrod presented House Democrats with polling data to back up his argument that Obama’s address had boosted public support for the overhaul, people in attendance said. Woolsey said she was gratified to hear Axelrod express unprompted support for the public option during the meeting.

Rules Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) said she disagreed with Obama that there might be workable substitutes for the public option but said the White House did not need to weigh in with more clarity. “This is our business now,— she said.

Hours after Axelrod addressed the Caucus, House Democratic leaders were meeting on the issue with four top White House officials on health care reform. That meeting — which included Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag, White House Legislative Affairs Director Phil Schiliro and health policy czar Nancy-Ann DeParle — focused on the $900 billion price tag Obama laid out in his speech.

Some House staffers are blaming Obama for elevating the issue of cost with his statement that the legislation must not add to the deficit “now or in the future,— believing this may have prompted the Congressional Budget Office’s subsequent decision to analyze the cost of the legislation over its second 10 years. Many expect such an analysis will come out badly for Democrats.

A study released this week by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation and conducted by the Lewin Group — a health care policy research firm — found that while the House legislation would largely be paid for in the first decade, it would add about $1 trillion to the deficit in the second.

Woolsey said liberals are nervous about Obama’s apparent commitment to ensure that any new expenses that crop up after the first 10 years are offset by cuts to keep the package deficit-neutral in the long run. “My concern would be if those cuts are coming out of subsidies,— she said.

Also causing trouble is a new Obama move to the right on immigration. Though he didn’t mention it in his speech, a statement released by the White House two days later revealed that the president opposes allowing illegal immigrants to purchase insurance on health care exchanges contemplated under the bill. Hispanic lawmakers are gravely concerned, with some fearing the concession could make it easier for Republicans to put even more restrictive provisions in the bill.

The issue was brought up with Axelrod during Tuesday’s meeting, with one Member speculating about a situation in which illegal immigrants who were not able to purchase insurance come down with the swine flu, fail to get treated and then spread it to those lawfully in the country.

“No one’s going to be asking people with H1N1 for their visas,— said a House Democratic leadership aide familiar with the Axelrod meeting.

Axelrod indicated he would raise Democrats’ concerns with the president.

Obama’s advocacy of a demonstration program to study reducing malpractice concerns has also drawn some frowns, but one Democratic aide noted that the concern was muted because the idea is included in the health care reform bill passed by the Energy and Commerce Committee.