It was Professor Obama who showed up in the East Room of the White House Wednesday night, offering lengthy answers to reporters – and the TV audience – on healthcare, the economy, and the arrest of black scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr.
President Obama, a onetime university instructor, did not break any new ground in his signature drive for health reform. Instead, he sought, through painstaking explanations, to convince Americans that the effort is essential to everyone, including those who already have insurance.
"This is not just about 47 million Americans who have no health insurance," Obama said in his opening statement. "Reform is about every American who has ever feared that they may lose their coverage."
Obama also raised the specter of healthcare costs that, if the reform effort fails, will continue to rise faster than the overall rate of inflation, absorbing a growing percentage of consumer paychecks and fueling the growth of the federal deficit. The status quo, he said, is unacceptable.
The president also expressed awareness of the public's growing fears, as reflected in polls showing that a majority of Americans now oppose Obama's handling of healthcare. One major area of concern is the cost of reform.
"The American people are understandably queasy about the huge deficits and debt that we're facing right now," he said.
In a plan that the administration expects would cost $1 trillion over 10 years, Obama says two-thirds of those costs will be covered by reallocating money that is being wasted in federal healthcare programs. The remaining one-third must not come from the middle class, he asserted.
He made note of a House proposal for a surcharge on wealthy families, defined as those with a joint income of at least $1 million. "To me, that meets my principle that it's not being shouldered by families who are already having a tough time," Obama said.
Obama also went into a lengthy description of the state of the economy as he inherited it and the steps he felt he had to take to keep the financial system from "falling off a cliff." Health reform, he said, will not add to the deficit, but will lower it.
But Obama's political opponents have made headlines charging that "Obamacare" constitutes a "government takeover" of healthcare. Using the bully pulpit that only the president enjoys, Obama pushed back, arguing that that's just politics. He sought to reassure Americans that they will be allowed to keep their provider, if they're happy with what they have; that the growth of costs will come down; and that insurers will not be allowed to reject someone with preexisting conditions.
The final question centered on a different topic: the recent arrest of Mr. Gates, a Harvard professor who is African-American and a friend of Obama's. Gates was arrested by police as he was trying to get into his own home in Cambridge, Mass. Obama said the police acted "stupidly" and then addressed the larger issue of racial profiling.
"What I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there is a long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped ... disproportionately," the president said.
Imagining himself in the same situation – trying to "jigger" into his own house – Obama joked: "Well, I guess this is my house now.... Here I'd get shot."
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