Obama Tries To Retake Health Care Dialogue

President Obama said Thursday any bill he signs must reduce costs, protect consumers, provide affordable choices and not add to the federal deficit. He was answering questions on health care from callers on a talk radio interview at the White House.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Today, President Obama tried to take control of the debate over a health care overhaul. He participated in two very different events. The first was a call-in talk radio show - the Philadelphia radio host Michael Smerconish broadcast from the White House. The other event was an Internet town hall at the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee.

NPR's Don Gonyea has been following all this from the White House. He joins us now. And Don, first of all, why this appearance on talk radio?

DON GONYEA: Well, talk radio is known as a conservative place, and by going there and taking phone calls that are screened not by the White House, but by the show's staff, the president sends a message that he's ready to take on all comers.

The host, Michael Smerconish, is described as a conservative, but it's also important to note here, he's not a Rush Limbaugh. He is a conservative who actually endorsed candidate Obama last year. Regardless, he has this national show and it was a good forum for the president, the White House thought.

BLOCK: And in some of those questions that the president took from listeners, he was trying to counter what he calls misinformation that's out there.

GONYEA: That's right. There has been a frustration on the part of the White House that there is so much of that out there and that it doesn't go away. And on the call-in show today, one woman said she thought the president was pushing a total government takeover of health care, until, she said, she heard him say otherwise today. She then asked about illegal immigrants and her belief that they should not get free health care. Here's the president's response to that.

President BARACK OBAMA: None of the bills that have been voted on in Congress and none of the proposals coming out of the White House propose giving coverage to illegal immigrants, none of them. That has never been on the table, nobody has discussed it. So everybody who's listening out there, when you start hearing that somehow this is all designed to provide health insurance to illegal immigrants, that is simply not true.

BLOCK: And on a different target audience at the other event, this Internet town hall that we mentioned, sponsored by the group Organizing for America.

GONYEA: Right. And you can find them at barackobama.com, so no doubt as to where they stand. There's a feeling that the president's supporters have not been playing a real major role in driving the national debate, that they haven't been as aggressive as the opposition that we've seen at the town halls and the like.

Now, part of it is that the president's supporters don't have a specific plan to get behind because the president has only laid out goals, leaving the details to Congress. But some of his strongest backers have wanted him to do more. For example, somebody today asked why he hasn't pushed harder for that public option.

But what he was doing in this very, very friendly town hall with these grassroots supporters, was really to give a pep talk and to remind them that the fight on health care is far from over. He said, hey, we've all been here before. And he reminded them what it was like way back in the early days of the campaign when they were with him, but when nobody thought he had a chance. Give a listen.

Pres. OBAMA: Thirty points down. And all of Washington said, oh, it's over -hand-wringing and angst and teeth-gnashing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Pres. OBAMA: And then, last year just about this time, you'll recall that the Republicans had just nominated their vice presidential candidate.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Pres. OBAMA: And everybody was - you know, the media was obsessed with it. And cable was 24 hours a day. And Obama's lost his mojo.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Pres. OBAMA: Do you remember all that?

BLOCK: So, Don, that's the president at the Internet town hall today. What more did President Obama have to say about the public option and if he will insist that that be part of health care that he would support?

GONYEA: He said he still wants it to be part of the process. He says there's been a lot of talk in the media, people getting excited, but nothing's changed. But he is avoiding saying he absolutely has to have it because he doesn't know if it'll be there on the bill that he eventually gets.

BLOCK: Okay, NPR's Don Gonyea at the White House. Thanks a lot.

GONYEA: My pleasure.

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