Obama tries to build momentum on healthcare reform

He points to new poverty rates indicating that the number of Americans without health insurance is growing.

Charles Dharapak/ AP
President Obama speaks during a meeting with his Cabinet on Thursday at the White House in Washington.

Fresh off his big healthcare speech, President Obama is trying to build momentum on the biggest policy initiative of his first year in office.

On Thursday morning, the president addressed nurses from the American Nurses Association in a forum next to the White House billed as “remarks on health insurance reform.” Mr. Obama repeated many of the points he had made the night before. But beyond substance, his relaxed, jovial manner spoke volumes about how he felt the speech had gone.

Obama mentioned how much he loves nurses – “Michelle knows about it,” he smiled – and recalled their role in the deliveries of his daughters and in helping his mother and grandmother through their final illnesses.

The president also used the forum to publicize new census figures released Thursday showing that the poverty rate rose to its highest level since the early 1990s, and that the number of uninsured rose in 2008. The latter figure now stands at 46. 3 million, up from 38.4 million in 2000.

In an analysis, the health reform advocacy group Families USA stated that the new Census Bureau data “substantially understate” how many people lack health coverage today, because unemployment is much higher now (9.7 percent in August) than last year (when it ranged from 4.8 percent to 7.2 percent). Families USA estimates the number of uninsured today “is probably close to 50 million.”

Among key points Obama highlighted in his remarks to nurses:

• His belief that while most Americans do have health insurance, they “have never had less security and stability than they do right now.” He then laid out the familiar mantra about exclusions insurance companies can now make when someone becomes ill or loses their job, and which he intends to fix. The phrase “security and stability” has clearly become part of the regular reform patter, and is aimed in particular at people who already have insurance and who may be wary of change.

• Another line from his Wednesday speech, that “nothing in this plan will require you, or your employer, to change the coverage or the doctor you have.” This point marked a restatement of what Obama used to say, that “if you like your healthcare plan, you can keep your healthcare plan.” His old formulation had been judged overbroad and thus not completely credible, by fact-checking watchdogs, while the new phraseology is a safer characterization, because it focuses on what the plan will require.

• That the so-called public option – a government-run health plan – would be just one of many choices in a proposed new health insurance marketplace.

“Let me just repeat – because this is the source of the rumor that we're plotting some government takeover of healthcare – it would just be one option among many,” Obama said. “No one would be forced to choose it.”

In remarks to reporters after a Cabinet meeting later on Thursday, Obama said he accepted an apology from Rep. Joe Wilson (R) of South Carolina, who had shouted out “You lie!” during Obama’s speech Wednesday night. “We all make mistakes,” Obama added.

Later on Thursday, Obama will meet with moderate Senate Democrats, a group whose votes will be crucial to passing reform. On Saturday, Obama heads to Minneapolis for a healthcare rally.

Meanwhile, Republicans are pondering their next move as the White House and congressional Democrats appear to be proceeding without them.


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