Obama Aims To Retake Reins Of Health Care Debate

President Obama gives his fourth prime-time news conference Wednesday night to push for health care overhaul. His appearance comes against growing opposition from Republicans in Congress and waning support in the polls.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

The White House also has to consider the political costs of health care changes. The president's approval rating is not as high as it was a few months ago.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And on health care one poll puts support for the president just below a majority. It's in that atmosphere that President Obama holds a primetime news conference tonight.

WERTHEIMER: NPR news analyst Juan Williams is in our studio.

Good morning, Juan.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Linda.

INSKEEP: And Juan, I want to read you a quote from a Republican here, Senator Jim DeMint. This is a quote: "If we're able to stop Obama on this, it will be his Waterloo. It will break him." That's the quote. What are the odds of getting Republican support on health care when that's how some lawmakers are thinking?

WILLIAMS: Not very high. You know, and other leading Republican strategists say this is the time Republicans can go for the kill. And what they're looking at, Steve, is they're looking at poll numbers, poll numbers like those from Gallop that indicate 50 percent of Americans now disapprove of President Obama's handling of the health care issue.

In fact, the Washington Post/ABC has a poll out that since April on health care, President Obama's standing has gone down from about 57 percent to 49 percent. And if you look at it, a lot of it has to do with the cost. Right now you have about 44 percent saying that they think that government-run health care will increase their cost, 63 percent think it's going to lead to higher taxes.

All those numbers suggest to Republicans that this is a critical moment for the Obama presidency and that while his popularity has been driving much of the support for health care, maybe they could attack some of those policies now.

INSKEEP: Although you just got on one of the complexities of this debate. If people in surveys are being asked about government-run health care, if that's the actual phrase being used in the poll, the administration can say that's not what we propose. We're not proposing government-run health care. But of course still you have the confusion in the debate.

WILLIAMS: Absolutely. And I think that's one - and you have the focus on cost, that people are increasingly - this is really interesting to me. It's independents who are flipping right now on health care, if you look at one group, and in particular people who make more than $50,000, because they think one of the key elements is it's going to drive up their taxes.

WERTHEIMER: The president has been talking about this day after day after day. What happens, do you think, when a president seems to stake everything on a single issue?

WILLIAMS: Well, this is very important for him, Linda, and very important right now, because this is the defining issue of his very young presidency. He's had some success, of course, on the stimulus package, even yesterday in terms of the vote on the F-22 in the Senate. But everything now is on the table. If we were playing poker, you know, it would be all chips are down on health care.

So how far does he go? Because he's got a majority in the Senate. He's got a majority in the House. And the question is, does he push them, does he push the timetable? Does he say you've got to do it before the August recess? Does he let them go until the end of the year? Does he give in on some of the key elements of his plan? All of it, really, right now is going to define what he's able to do going forward beyond this issue on energy, for example.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think he needs to be nervous about the Democrats?

WILLIAMS: He is very nervous about the Democrats, had Democrats over at the White House yesterday. And again, it comes down to whether or not Democrats feel that this is about just President Obama, or is he looking out for the team? Is he looking out for the Democratic Party going towards 2010?

INSKEEP: Well, on that point one, Juan, how does it affect the president's role in these detailed negotiations that he says he's trying to leave the details as much as possible to Congress?

WILLIAMS: Well, it has hurt him to a large extent, Steve, because what he'd hoped was he was avoiding the President Clinton/Hillary Clinton trap going back to the early '90s by laying out something that critics could go after. But allowing everybody to have their own ideas has also then allowed a sort of cacophony to develop around town, and everybody picks at one specific item.

People start then questioning whether or not it holds to President Obama's campaign promises. And the result has been sort of all over the table as opposed to something that's concerted and allows the president to say here's where I stand, here's the line in the sand that I won't go past or whatever. And right now he's trying to regain it by having the press conference tonight, and then all the interviews he has been giving, trying to once again sort of take the reigns of the health care debate. That's what we're seeing taking place here.

WERTHEIMER: NPR News analyst Juan Williams, thank you.

WILLIAMS: Linda, Steve, good morning.

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