Iran, Health Care Dominate Questions For Obama

In his fourth formal news conference, President Obama took questions Tuesday that focused on Iran and health care. He said he was "appalled and outraged" by Iran's violent reaction to protests following the disputed presidential election. The president also talked at length about the cost of overhauling health care and the role of a public insurance plan.

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President Obama, yesterday, condemned the Iranian government crackdown on demonstrators in the streets of Tehran and he called, heartbreaking, the death of one young Iranian woman caught on videotape. Mr. Obama was pressed on how he plans to respond to Iran at a White House news conference, he also talked about the White House goal of overhauling the nation's health care system.

NPR's Don Gonyea has this report from the White House.

DON GONYEA: For a week and a half, the world has watched the crackdown on protests in Tehran. President Obama has called for an end to the violence. He's defended what he calls the universal right of people to dissent. And yesterday he used the start of his news conference to make that point in his strongest language yet.

President BARACK OBAMA: The United States and the international community have been appalled and outraged by the threats, of the beatings and imprisonments of the last few days. I strongly condemn these unjust actions and I join with the American people in mourning each and every innocent life that is lost.

GONYEA: But during questioning, the president would not state the consequences Iran faces if the violence continues. He stuck to his position that the U.S. cannot be seen as meddling in Iranian politics noting that the government there would quickly use that as a tool against demonstrators. When asked if he still hopes to engage Iran in negotiations over its nuclear program, he said, yes. But added that the administration has to see how the current crisis plays out.

Pres. OBAMA: What we've been seeing over the last several days, the last couple of weeks, obviously is not encouraging in terms of the path that this regime may choose to take.

GONYEA: As per Republicans in Congress who say he has not responded forcefully enough, among them Senator John McCain, the president had this response when asked if his words were now tougher because of such critics.

Pres. OBAMA: What do you think?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GONYEA: The other dominant topic yesterday was health care. The president wants to give people the option of enrolling in a government sponsored plan that would compete with private insurers. The battle in Congress is just underway, but signs of how tough it will be are already evident. Republicans and some Democrats have already blanched at an estimated price tag topping a trillion dollars. The president maintains that will be offset by cost savings and through new efficiencies. And, he says, maintaining the status quo would be prohibitively expensive because premiums keep going up and up.

Pres. OBAMA: So, the notion that somehow we can just keep on doing what we're doing and that's okay, that's just not true. We have a long-standing critical problem in our health care system that is pulling down our economy, it's burdening families, it's burdening businesses, and it is the primary driver of our federal deficits.

GONYEA: And the president responded to claims by big health insurers who say they won't survive if forced to compete with a government plan.

Pres. OBAMA: Well, why would it drive private insurance out of business? If private insurers say that the marketplace provides the best quality health care, if they tell us that they're offering a good deal, then why is it that the government, which they say can't run anything, suddenly is going to drive them out of business? That's not logical?

GONYEA: But the private insurers worry that it would be impossible to compete against a government plan that's heavily subsidized. The president also talked about the economy. He was asked if higher than projected jobless rates nationally and the slow pace of the recovery mean a second government stimulus package will be needed. Not yet, he said. Then he added…

Pres. OBAMA: Look, the American people have a right to feel like this is a tough time right now. What's incredible to me is how resilient the American people have been and how they are still more optimistic than the facts alone would justify, because this is a tough, tough period.

GONYEA: Those are words that describe much of what the president is dealing with - domestically and abroad.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, the White House.

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Obama Denounces Violence On Iran's Streets

President Obama i i

During his midday news conference Tuesday, President Obama used his strongest language to date to denounce the Iranian government's violence against election protesters. Mandel Ngan/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mandel Ngan/Getty Images
President Obama

During his midday news conference Tuesday, President Obama used his strongest language to date to denounce the Iranian government's violence against election protesters.

Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

From The White House

President Obama on Tuesday used his strongest language to date to denounce the Iranian government's violence against election protesters, condemning the deadly crackdown and expressing outrage at "threats, beatings and imprisonments."

But, during a televised news conference, the president stopped short of suggesting any formal action against the country.

"We don't know yet how this thing is going to play out," he told reporters who had packed the White House briefing room for a session dominated by Iran and the president's stalled health care overhaul plan.

"I know everyone here is on a 24-hour news cycle," the president said dryly. "I'm not."

'I'm The President'

Obama also pushed back hard against Republican critics like Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who have castigated the White House for what they have characterized as a timid response to the violence against demonstrators questioning President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's re-election.

"I think John McCain has genuine passion about many of these international issues," Obama said. "But only I'm the president of the United States.

"And I've got responsibilities in making certain that we are continually advancing our national security interests and that we are not used as a tool to be exploited by other countries," he said.

The president, whose comments came in response to sharp questioning about his response to the violence in Iran, noted that statements he's made have been "mistranslated" to suggest that he's encouraging rioters.

He said that government officials in Iran have also suggested that the CIA had a hand in organizing protests — among accusations he characterized as "patently false and absurd."

"I have made it clear that the United States respects the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic of Iran and is not interfering in Iran's affairs," Obama said.

He defended what he called the consistency of his response and attempted to explain the fine line the administration has been walking since election protests erupted: responding to the violence, but maintaining a "path" for Iran's engagement in the larger international community.

"But we also must bear witness to the courage and dignity of the Iranian people, and to a remarkable opening within Iranian society," he said. "We deplore the violence against innocent civilians anywhere that it takes place."

When asked if he had seen a widely disseminated video showing the death of an Iranian woman demonstrator who had been shot in the chest, the president said he had.

"It's heartbreaking. It's — it's heartbreaking," Obama said. "And I think that anybody who sees it knows that there's something fundamentally unjust about that."

However, he again stepped back from directly questioning the results of Iran's election.

"We didn't have international observers on the ground," he said. "We can't say definitively what exactly happened at polling places throughout the country."

Tinkering Won't Work

The president's appearance before the White House press corps also kicked off a week of his health care hard sell and his full-court press to bolster the stalled fortunes of his overhaul plan.

"There's some notion that if we stand pat, we're OK," he said. "That's just not true."

But, when pressed about whether he would insist that any overhaul include a public insurance plan, the president demurred.

"We are still early in the process," he said. "We have not drawn lines in the sand other than reform has to control costs" and provide relief for those without insurance or who are underinsured.

He attempted to humanize the issue by referring to a Wisconsin woman he recently met who, despite her husband's insurance, is still $50,000 in debt after a double mastectomy to treat her breast cancer.

The president, as he has done repeatedly in the past, characterized a health care overhaul as an economic imperative: The current system, he said, is not only burdening families and businesses, but is the "primary driver of our federal deficit." And to solve that will require more than "tinkering around the edges."

The Big Cost Question

But the administration was knocked on its heels last week when the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that the government cost for health care plans now under consideration in the Senate would top $1 trillion.

And Tuesday morning, large insurers told Congress that the president's plan to offer a government-managed — and perhaps subsidized — public insurance option would put them out of business.

When asked about the claim that insurers would not be able to compete with a public insurance option, Obama said their argument "defies logic."

"If insurers are doing their job," he said, "they should be able to compete."

A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that 76 percent of those surveyed said it was "extremely" or "quite" important that people have a public insurance option. But only 33 percent of those surveyed said that the president's plan was a good idea, from what they knew of it. Thirty-two percent said it was a bad idea, and 30 percent had no opinion.

The administration and its surrogates see opportunity in those numbers. The Democratic National Committee, in concert with the White House, on Tuesday announced the launch of a Web site stocked with "genuine health care stories" that it says underscore the need for a comprehensive overhaul.

"I'm very optimistic about the progress" Congress is making on the overhaul, Obama said, an effort that "must and will be paid for" through "savings and efficiencies within the health care system."

Energy, Economy And Cigarettes

The House is scheduled to vote late this week on a controversial climate change bill; opponents have raised concerns about the costs of moving to cleaner energy, but some environmentalists say compromises on the bill have stripped out key elements they support. The president on Tuesday made a strong pitch for its passage, characterizing it as a historic bill that will "spark a clean energy transformation that will reduce our dependence on foreign oil."

He also defended the stimulus package that has been losing support with the public as the nation's job situation continues a bleak path. The president acknowledged that unemployment will hit 10 percent despite earlier administration assertions that the level would remain below 8 percent.

"In the absence of the stimulus, I think our recession would be much worse," he said.

"Without the Recovery Act, we know for a fact that states, for example, would have laid off a lot more teachers, a lot more police officers and a lot more firefighters," he said.

The American people, Obama said, "have a right to feel like this is a tough time now."

Speaking of tough times, the president bristled when asked about his occasional smoking habit — a day after he signed a tobacco regulation bill.

"I think it's fair to just say that you just think it's neat to ask me about my smoking as opposed to it being relevant to my new law," he said.

"But that's fine. I understand. It's an interesting human interest story," the president said, acknowledging that he struggles with the habit, has "fallen off the wagon," but is "95 percent cured."

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