Obama Says 'OK' That Healthcare Vote Delayed

President Barack Obama stepped up his us-against-them pitch for overhauling health care Thursday, saying the American people need it and must overcome resistance from opponents in Washington, whom he described vaguely as naysayers and skeptics.

President Barack Obama
Photo by: Pete Souza
President Barack Obama

But Obama conceded Thursday that Congress will not meet his August deadline for passing healthcare reform bills, but said he wanted lawmakers to keep on working on the issue.

It was the first time he has said he wouldn't be troubled if the bills in the House of Representatives and the Senate didn't pass by the time Congress leaves on its August recess.

"I want the bill to get out of the committees," Obama told a town hall meeting in Shaker Heights, Ohio. "I want it done by the end of this year." If the bills don't pass by August, he said, "that's OK. I just want people to keep on working."

"Reform may be coming too soon for some in Washington," Obama told hundreds who packed a high school gym in the suburb of Cleveland. "But it's not soon enough for the American people."

The president took a few swipes at Republican critics. But his biggest obstacles are fellow Democrats, who control the House and Senate and are moving slowly on his call for widespread changes to U.S. health care.

Senate leaders said Thursday they could not meet Obama's deadline for a vote before the August recess. And a key House committee is struggling to placate moderate Democrats worried about the plan's costs.

Starting with a news conference Wednesday in Washington, Obama increasingly is pitching his remarks directly to American voters, hoping they will pressure reluctant lawmakers. He ratcheted up the rhetoric at the town hall forum here, likening the bid to overhaul health care to the manned missions to the moon 40 years ago.

"There are those who see our failure to address stubborn problems as a sign that our best days are behind us," Obama said before taking audience questions. "Well, I believe that this generation, like generations past, stands ready to defy the naysayers and the skeptics."

His plan would insure more Americans, partly through government subsidies; provide a government-run option to compete with private insurers; require large employers to contribute to health coverage one way or another; and control Medicaid costs by empowering an executive branch agency to set reimbursement rates for doctors and hospitals, subject to a congressional veto.

Obama tried to allay worries about the proposed changes, saying the current system of rising costs and uneven care is much worse.

"If you already have health insurance, the reform we're proposing will give you more security," Obama said Thursday. "It will keep the insurance companies out of your health care decisions, too, by stopping insurers from cherry-picking who they cover, and holding insurers to higher standards for what they cover."

For all his efforts, which have included public statements each weekday for the past few weeks, Republican lawmakers and other critics sense momentum building against Obama's plan. They particularly cite nonpartisan cost projections that have not predicted the savings the White House promises.

"What I heard last night was a president that seems somewhat frustrated that people do not understand what this government health care plan is all about," Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House Republican whip, said Thursday on NBC's "Today" show. "I think people still have a lot of questions about what a (new) health care plan means for them and their families."

The number of Americans who disapprove of the president's health care plan has jumped to 43 percent, compared with 28 percent in April, according to the latest Associated Press-GfK poll. Obama still holds a strong hand, with most Americans favorable to him in general, and half supporting his health care agenda.

But it's the negative trend in polls that worries his supporters, and some want the president to be even more forceful and visible in pushing his top domestic priority.

"He's the great communicator," said Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee, a moderate Democrat who wants lower costs but supports the overall thrust of Obama's efforts. "If anybody can explain this, he can."

"The White House needs to assert more authority," said Cooper, who has focused on health care for years. "I'll be relieved when they take over the marketing of this, because Congress has done a terrible job."

It's hard for Obama, or anyone, to succinctly advocate health care changes just now because multiple versions are slowly moving through the House and Senate.

"The case has not been made" for a particular version because the eventual legislation is unclear, said Rep. Artur Davis, D-Ala.

For now, Obama keeps insisting on all the major elements of his far-reaching proposal and warning of dire consequences if they are not enacted. Obama privately toured the Cleveland Clinic on Thursday before heading to the town hall forum.