News & Politics

Obama Comes Out Swinging at Cynical GOP on Health Care, Addresses Race Issues in Prof. Gates Arrest

At Wednesday's press conference, Obama said the "stars are aligned" for health reform and tackled the racial injustice typified by prof's arrest.

At a press conference in the East Room of the White House, President Barack Obama came out swinging tonight at Republicans who would aim to make the debate over health-care reform the president's personal Waterloo.

He finished the night with a big bang, when he took a question on a racially charged incident, and responded with ironic humor. In between, he was all wonk.

If the president sought to inspire the viewing public about the need for health insurance reform, he most certainly didn't do that. If he meant to reassure them that he's smart enough to know how to make it work, he may have succeeded. What he seemed to think he was there to do was to answer reporters' complex questions about complicated issues in a way that wouldn't sully negotiations taking place in Congress. And that he did quite well.

In his opening remarks, the president spoke firmly, lightly pounding his lectern, as he stressed the need for reform.  Every day, he said, 14,000 Americans lose their health care coverage. Then, without naming names, he said of his adversaries across the aisle, "I’ve heard that one Republican strategist told his party that even though they may want to compromise, it’s better politics to 'go for the kill.'  Another Republican senator said that defeating health reform is about 'breaking' me." (Allow me to name names for you: The first reference is to Bill Kristol, and the second, Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina.)

"So let me be clear," Obama continued. "This isn’t about me. I have great health insurance, and so does every member of Congress. This debate is about the letters I read when I sit in the Oval Office every day, and the stories I hear at town hall meetings. …This debate is not a game for these Americans, and they cannot afford to wait for reform any longer."

An early question from David Alexander of Reuters repeated a Republican theme regarding the president's August deadline for passing health-insurance reform legislation. The theme goes like this:  "Hey, what's the rush?"

Obama repeated his refrain that nothing happens in Washington without a deadline. But then, citing the bills that came out of two House committees last week, and one in the Senate, as well as endorsements from a range of advocacy groups, representing "doctors, nurses, hospitals, even the pharmaceutical industry and the AARP," Obama got a little cosmic: "I think means that the stars are aligned, and we need to take advantage of that."

Fielding reporters' questions, the president sought to explain why health care reform would not actually drive up the deficit and said he understood that the American people might be a little "queasy" about what appears to be another spending bill coming on top of the bank bailouts and the stimulus package. 

"We've just become so cynical about what government can accomplish," Obama said, calling that an understandable result of people not seeing much lawmaking that was helpful to them come out of Washington in the past few years.

The president contended that he would not sign any health care reform bill that would drive up the deficit, saying the charge that health insurance reform would push the debt and the deficit higher was a false argument that "has been used, effectively, I think, by people who don't want to change health care."

Two-thirds of the new system's cost would come from efficiencies and savings built into the plan, Obama said, with the final third coming from some sort of revenue-generator that would not come "on the backs of the middle class."

His plan, which he says he still thinks is the best, would rely on a reduction in itemized deductions allowed on the tax returns of the rich, but that mechanism does not appear in any of the bills currently being discussed on Capitol Hill.

As a revenue-generator, the House bill relies on a progressive surtax on people making more than $280,000 per year. Obama indicated his preference for the suggestion made by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., of applying the surtax only on households earning more than $1 million, a gesture regarded as an attempt to placate the conservative Blue Dog Coalition of conservative Democrats who scuttled a committee vote this week on the current House bill. Obama also signaled that he might be open to a tax on some health-care benefits, as long as it does not fall on the middle class. 

But when asked about the obstruction his plan is seeing at the hands of the Blue Dogs, the president punted, saying that some of the differences had to do with regional disparities over Medicare reimbursements. (He didn't explain how regional disparities added up to a scuffle over whether to tax millionaires or working stiffs with extra-good health insurance.)

From a purely political perspective, it's easy to see why the president doesn't want to diss the Dogs, since he'll need them to actually pass a bill. The Republicans, on the other hand, not so much -- so long as those Dogs are in his pen.

Obama expressed strong support for a public option, got down in the weeds about how the system would be made more efficient by reducing the repetition of similar medical tests by having doctors working in teams and explained the drag that escalating health care costs have on wages and income.

He took an interesting question on transparency from Christi Parsons of the Los Angeles Times, who wanted to know why the president had failed to release the names of health-care industry executives who had visited the White House. Apparently anticipating the question, the White House had released the list that very day to the organization Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

Throughout the press conference, Obama appeared as policy-wonk-in-chief, showing little of his legendary charm and personality, until a question from Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun Times delivered the motherlode that broke through the Vulcan mind-meld in which the president had held the press corps all evening.

"Recently, Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was arrested at his home in Cambridge," Sweet said. "What does that incident say to you? And what does it say about race relations in America?"

Obama is often knocked as being too careful on questions about race. Critics recently faulted him for not wanting to address the NAACP convention in a larger venue -- say, Yankee Stadium -- than the ballroom that was eventually chosen.  But here, Obama's response seemed instinctive, heartfelt and entirely reflective of the complexities of race relations in America.

"Well, I -- I should say at the outset that Skip Gates is a friend, so I may be a little biased here," the president said. "I don't know all the facts. What's been reported, though, is that the guy forgot his keys, jimmied his way to get into the house; there was a report called into the police station that there might be a burglary taking place. So far, so good, right? I mean, if I was trying to jigger into --"

Then he stopped and smiled, suddenly realizing where he was. "Well, I guess this is my house now, so -- - it probably wouldn't happen." The room erupted in laughter, with Obama joining in. "But let's say my old house in Chicago --"  He stopped, and paused a moment, and turned his head to the side of the room. "Here I'd get shot."  Another big laugh.

He went on to recount his understanding of what happened in the altercation between Gates and the Cambridge, Mass., police department -- that Gates showed the investigating officer his I.D., proving his address, and was then arrested for disorderly conduct (after yelling at the police officer, according to the police report).

"I don't know, not having been there and not seeing all the facts, what role race played in that," Obama continued. "But I think it's fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; 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 is a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That's just a fact."

The president recounted his own work in the Illinois legislature on a measure to curtail racial profiling by police officers. "That doesn't lessen the incredible progress that has been made," Obama said. "I am standing here as testimony to the progress that's been made. And yet the fact of the matter is, is that, you know, this still haunts us."

And for just a moment, everybody forgot about the legislative battle over health care, having just been reminded that we are witnesses to history.

Adele M. Stan is AlterNet's acting Washington bureau chief.