Health Care

Radio, Grassroots Used To Push Health Care Rx

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With polls showing public support slipping for the White House push to change health care, President Obama reached out to two different audiences Thursday. He's trying to gain control of the debate on overhauling health care. Obama invited a conservative talk radio show to the White House; then the president visited the Democratic National Committee headquarters where he talked about health care to the audience and to thousands watching online.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Polls show public support is slipping for the White House push to make changes in health care, so President Obama reached out to two very different audiences yesterday. First, he invited a conservative talk radio host to the White House. Then he appeared at an Internet town hall hosted by his own grassroots supporters. NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA: August has been tough for the president with a reluctant Congress and a wary public as he pursues his top domestic priority - health care. A well-organized opposition has fueled doubts about the entire process, so the president is looking for ways to turn things around. Yesterday he turned to talk radio.

(Soundbite of radio show)

Mr. MICHAEL SMERCONISH (Radio Host): Broadcasting from the cradle of liberty, this is "The Michael Smerconish Program."

(Soundbite of music)

GONYEA: Philadelphia-based Michael Smerconish describes his talk show as right of center. But he's also a conservative who endorsed candidate Barack Obama last year. So this is no Rush Limbaugh. Still, it was a chance for the president to take questions and to address misinformation and misconceptions people have. One caller worried about illegal immigrants getting free health care. The president responded…

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.

GONYEA: Smerconish mixed his own questions in with the calls.

Mr. SMERCONISH: And, sir, you know that there's a perception out there that you want it all. You want to be in the banks. You want to be in the automotive industry. And now you want to be in health care. Can you address that mindset?

GONYEA: The president answered that help for cars and banks began under President Bush. And he said claims that he's really pushing a government takeover of health care are wrong. He said he wants a public option but only as one piece of a larger system dominated by private insurers. Mr. Obama insisted, though, that he does want people to have the choice of a government-run plan and he disputed reports that he's given up on that.

Talk radio is known for its conservative audience, but the toughest question actually came from a caller who proudly supports the president. He said it's frustrating that Mr. Obama isn't standing up to Republicans, even though Democrats have solid majorities in both the House and Senate.

Unidentified Man: (Caller) I'm getting a little ticked off that it feels like the knees are buckling a little bit. We have overwhelming majorities in both the House and the Senate. And we own the whole shooting match. And I'm just not getting - it's very frustrating to watch you try and compromise with a lot of these people who aren't willing to compromise with.

GONYEA: The phone line broke up a bit, but the message was clear. Why even bother working with Republicans who don't want to find any solution? In answering, the president did complain that some Republicans are simply using health care to hurt him politically. But he also said it's important to try to get bipartisan support.

Barely and hour later, Mr. Obama was at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington for an event with members of Organizing for America.

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified People: Yes, we can!

President BARACK OBAMA: Yes, we can.

Unidentified People: Yes, we can!

President OBAMA: Thank you.

GONYEA: This is an organization set up to give grassroots activists involved in the presidential campaign a way to stay involved. The event was streamed live on the Internet. People wanted to know how to help and how to answer questions they've been getting.

President OBAMA: Talk to them about the fact that, by the way, Medicare's already a government program, so when I…

(Soundbite of laughter)

President OBAMA: …when people say…

(Soundbite of applause)

President OBAMA: …keep government out of our health care, make sure they know Medicare is a government program.

GONYEA: He said this is a tough battle, but he asked these activists to remember how unlikely success seemed when they were major underdogs early on in his presidential campaign. But in the campaign it was easier to control the message and to define the choice. On health care, with Congress in charge of the details and with the House and Senate each going its own way, it's a very different challenge the president faces.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, the White House.

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