Warning: May cause drowsiness

Obama gets animated during a press conference on his healthcare plan -- but only when someone changes the subject

By Mike Madden
July 24, 2009 4:23AM (UTC)
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U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at a news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington July 22, 2009.

President Obama wants you to know that he, personally, doesn't need the healthcare reforms he's pushing Congress to pass right now.

"I'm the president of the United States, so I've got a doctor following me every minute," Obama said at Wednesday night's prime-time press conference, the latest stage in his battle to shake the Beltway crowd's new conventional wisdom: that reform -- and with it, his domestic agenda -- is in trouble. "Which is why I say this is not about me. I've got the best healthcare in the world. I'm trying to make sure that everybody has good healthcare, and they don't right now." Earlier, he had made sure to note that "I have great health insurance, and so does every member of Congress."


That might be good news for him, because it's not clear exactly how much he actually accomplished in the hour or so of network TV time he commanded to prod Congress to get the job done. Yes, it's way too early to declare reform dead, no matter how often cable news pundits try to do just that. But while Obama had a chance to turn the entire conversation around Wednesday, he may have missed it. Despite the prime-time exposure, he didn't bring much in the way of new rhetoric -- or new energy -- to his pitch. If you'd listened to him talking about healthcare reform before, there wasn't much you hadn't already heard -- a point he hammered home himself by prefacing three different remarks with something along the lines of, "I've said this already." Unable, or unwilling, to get out ahead of negotiations in Congress, Obama stuck to the same broad statements of principle that he's been making for months.

The press conference started on a promising note, with Obama trying to reassure anxious voters who seem wary of actually changing the healthcare system, now that an overhaul has become a real possibility. "A lot of Americans may be wondering, 'What's in this for me? How does my family stand to benefit from health insurance reform?'" he said. The answer made reform sound pretty good: You'll keep your insurance if you like it, you'll be able to find new insurance if you don't, and everything will be more affordable. It won't be paid for with taxes on the middle class, and it's not about political gamesmanship.

Once the questions started, though, Obama got bogged down a little, often going into intricate detail instead of homing in on the need for action. Though his opening remarks were fairly short, there was only time for questions from 10 reporters in the remaining 45 minutes or so -- and one of those was by accident, after one writer jumped in and asked a question even though the president had called on a colleague. Asked early on how he would propose to pay for the $1 trillion-plus cost of the reforms, Obama reminded voters that he had originally wanted to pay for the plan by cutting the amount that rich taxpayers can deduct for charitable donations; that's true, but since Congress shot the idea down as soon as the administration sent it up Pennsylvania Avenue, it was sort of beside the point.


Later, Obama tried to explain why reform needs to include measures to force doctors -- and insurance companies -- to focus on treatments that actually work, as opposed to the ones that cost more. But he wound up sounding like he'd accidentally wandered into an early script meeting for "The Matrix": "If there's a blue pill and a red pill, and the blue pill is half the price of the red pill and works just as well, why not pay half price for the thing that's going to make you well?" 

He dismissed the notion that conservative Democrats were causing most of the problem on healthcare now, saying any problems were "part of the normal give-and-take of the legislative process." And even though the Democratic National Committee, the White House and most of their allies have been bashing Republican opposition to reform as politically motivated for days, Obama said he'd never done anything of the sort. "Well, first of all, you haven't seen me out there blaming the Republicans," he said. "I've been a little frustrated by some of the misinformation that's been coming out of the Republicans, but that has to do with, as you pointed out, politics."

When the questions drifted to other topics, he wasn't much more on point. The president dodged a question on whether his administration was falling short of his promises of transparency. Asked whether the government needed to take a harder line with Wall Street banks -- who have reported record profits lately, thanks in part to massive infusions of tax dollars -- Obama said the profit reports were good news: "We also think it's a good thing that they're profitable again. Because if they're profitable, that means that they have reserves in place and they can lend." Never mind that they aren't really doing that. Obama did, at one point, utter a line sure to drive Lou Dobbs and everyone else obsessed with his birth certificate even crazier. "Speaking as an American," Obama said of some healthcare reforms, "I think that's the kind of change you want." At least no one in the press corps picked up the Birther banner.


It was only at the end of the news conference that Obama truly came to life. The subject was race, the issue he and his advisors have been the most careful about addressing over the last two years. Asked about Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s arrest last week -- apparently for trying to break into his own home -- Obama finally showed the relaxed, confident side that's been missing through much of the tense healthcare debate. "There was a report called in to the police station that there might be a burglary taking place," he said. "So far, so good, right? I mean, if I was trying to jigger into -- well, I guess this is my house now, so it probably wouldn't happen. But let's say my old house in Chicago -- here, I'd get shot."

And then, seemingly buoyed by the laughs he got, Obama dove right into the question, without worrying much about being cautious or politically calculating. "I think it's fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry," he said. "Number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and, number three, what I think we know, separate and apart from this incident, is that there's a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That's just a fact."


If he'd been able to muster the same blunt, self-assured common-sense tone to help rally support for healthcare, the night could have gone a little differently. As it is, though, White House aides may be back to anxiously monitoring talks on Capitol Hill on Thursday, wondering if Obama did enough to rouse Congress to move.

Video: President Obama on the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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