At healthcare town hall, Obama goes on the offensive

He's not doing so well in D.C., but in Raleigh, the president gets a warm reception, and responds

By Alex Koppelman
Published July 29, 2009 7:55PM (EDT)

Back in Washington, it hasn't been a great week for President Obama and his fellow Democrats, at least not when it comes to their push for healthcare reform legislation. There's the long, protracted fight, the final admission that they'll miss their self-imposed deadline and polling that shows Americans are losing confidence in their plan.

But when Obama went to Raleigh, N.C., for a town hall on Wednesday, it was a different story. There, he got a very enthusiastic response, and he seemed to draw a new energy from the crowd.

The president did address his political troubles, though.

"Back in Washington, there's been a lot of talk about the politics of health care, and who's up and who's down, and what it will mean for my party if this -- will my presidency be damaged severely if we don't pass health care. I keep on saying to people, 'I've got health care.' This is not for me," Obama said. "Here in North Carolina, you know this isn't about politics. This is about people's lives. This is about people's businesses."

And -- notably, considering that he was speaking in a reddish state that gave him its Electoral College votes last fall, and was heading to another one, Virginia, later in the day -- Obama didn't just make his remarks about healthcare. He also focused on the stimulus and the economy, something that certainly has a political import for him.

The president assured the audience his policies will work, but also reminded them, as he has many times before, that he inherited the situation. His lines on this message remain good, but he did sound a little defensive delivering these lines: 

There should be little debate that the steps we took, taken together, have helped stop our economic free fall. That's the story of the first six months. It's cost some money to do this, although I've got to say when I hear critics talk about out-of-control spending, I start scratching my head. I can't help but remember those same critics contributed to a $1.3 trillion deficit that I inherited when I took office.

I mean, seriously, you know, I'm now president so I'm responsible for solving it, but I -- I do think we shouldn't have a selective memory in terms of spending habits. You hand me a $1.3 trillion bill and then you're complaining six months later because we haven't paid it all back.

Obama also made an off-the-cuff remark that may come back to haunt him a little, one of those ad-libbed remarks that would probably be insignificant if not for the nature of modern politics but could hurt him now.

"I just want everybody to know, Congress will have time to read the bill. They will have time to debate the bill," he said. "When we come back in September, I will be available to answer any question that members of Congress have. If they want to come over to the White House and go over line by line what's going on, I will be happy to do that."

Republicans may well try to take advantage of that line, trying to get every back-bencher who normally wouldn't even get his calls returned by the White House a meeting with the president. If he declines, as he'd basically have to, they can then try to use the line as a club against him, saying he's not being open or bipartisan.

Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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