Amid Opposition, Obama Keeps Talking Health Care

President Obama has been taking to the airwaves and holding rallies and town hall meetings in an effort to win over Americans who are cautious about his plan to overhaul the health care system. On Sunday he'll appear on five TV talk shows in an effort to sway public opinion in his favor.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep in Houston.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne at NPR West in California.

The latest plan for revamping health care sought bipartisan support without success. It emerged from the Senate Finance Committee without a single Republican backer. Here's how Utah's Orrin Hatch put it to us yesterday.

Senator ORRIN HATCH (Republican, Utah): You know, if anyone believes that Washington can do a plan that will cost close to a trillion dollars, cover all Americans, not raise taxes on anyone, not increase the deficit, then I have a special bridge to sell to you.

MONTAGNE: For some Democrats, the new proposal doesn't do enough. That helps explain why President Obama was at the University of Maryland yesterday making his case. Fifteen thousand screaming supporters were thrilled to see him, but less thrilled about the latest health care plan.

NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson was at the rally.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

MARA LIASSON: It was a large, fired-up crowd, and the president said he had some good news. We're now closer to reforming the health system, he said, than we've ever been.

President BARACK OBAMA: After debating this issue for the better part of the year, there is now agreement in Congress of about 80 percent of what needs to be done. Four out of five committees in Congress have completed their work. Yesterday, the Finance Committee under the leadership of Max Baucus put out its own bill.

(Soundbite of booing)

President OBAMA: Each bill has its strengths, and there are a lot of similarities between them.

LIASSON: There might be agreement on 80 percent, but those boos you heard from this liberal crowd were about the other 20 percent. And plenty of the 20 percent is in the Senate Finance Committee proposal. Others Democrats are complaining that Senator Baucus' bill doesn't do enough to make health care affordable for the middle class. Unions don't like the tax it puts on high-cost Cadillac coverage.

Ms. DOROTHY BRYANT: My sticker says, public option.

LIASSON: And the other sticker?

Ms. BRYANT: Don't tax our benefits.

LIASSON: Dorothy Bryant(ph) is a member of AFSCME, the public employees' union. She's unhappy the Senate Finance plan doesn't include a government-run alternative to private insurance, and she doesn't want insurers taxed on the so-called gold-plated plans that they write for many union members. Bryant says during last year's campaign she did everything she could for candidate Obama, knocking on doors, working the phones, and as she put it, waving signs on street corners all over Baltimore county. But she won't be nearly as enthusiastic if the Senate bill becomes the final word.

Ms. BRYANT: Very disappointed, very disappointed.

LIASSON: If it doesn't have a public option, do you think he should still sign the bill?

Ms. BRYANT: I'm not sure on that one. I'm still, still debating that in my mind. I'm still debating that.

LIASSON: Wendy Dow(ph), another committed Obama supporter, has a message for the president.

Ms. WENDY DOW: I love him and I have all respect for him. And I know he has a terribly challenging job right now, but I'd like him to be a little tougher - just a little tougher and stand up for the American people like he said he would.

LIASSON: As the substance of the health care debate on Capitol Hill has moved closer to the center, the president's rhetoric has become more combative, as if he was trying to make up to his activist base in words what he hasn't yet been able to deliver in legislation.

(Soundbite of applause)

Pres. OBAMA: I said we're closer to reform than we've ever been, but this is the hard part. This is when the special interests gear up. This is when the folks who want to kill reform fight back with everything they've got. This is when they spread all kinds of rumors to scare and intimidate Americans. This is what they always do.

LIASSON: But it's not just the folks who want to kill reform that the president has to worry about. He's been holding one-on-one meetings at the White House with wavering senators of his own party. And in public, Mr. Obama is making himself practically unavoidable. This Sunday, he'll appear on five television talk shows, leaving some wondering whether he's overexposed, but not former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta, now an informal adviser to the Obama team. Podesta thinks the more the president is on television, the better.

Mr. JOHN PODESTA (Center for American Progress): Well, I think we saw what happens when he gets off the screen in late July and, you know, particularly in early August before he came back out to fight for it.

LIASSON: The summer is when the president's approval ratings and support for his health care plans dropped, and when his base began to have doubts about his hands off strategy. Podesta said that's what the president is trying to reverse with his new stepped-up campaign.

Mr. PODESTA: And I think that what the president is able to do now is to fire up that base, get some support into offices that are wondering whether the public was really drifting against it. If you look at the polling over the course of the last several weeks, you see that while the overall attitudes have changed just a little bit in his favor, the intensity has changed quite a bit in his favor.

LIASSON: And the president is even going to make a little bit of media history with his TV blitz. On Monday night he'll become the first sitting president to appear on the David Letterman show.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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