Obama Focused Despite Hometown Political Scandal

At a news conference in Chicago, President-elect Barack Obama named Tom Daschle as his choice for Health and Human Services Secretary. If confirmed, the former Senate majority leader will use the post to help overhaul the health care system. Obama also addressed the federal corruption investigation involving Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's Morning Edition from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep. This may not seem like the time for the government to take another massive and complicated problem, yet President-elect Obama says it's precisely the time. He wants to press ahead with reforms to the healthcare system. And the leader of his fight to do that will be former Senator Tom Daschle, chosen now for two top jobs. To make any changes, the new administration would have to find ways to hold on to a top priority even in tough times. NPR's Scott Horsley listened as Mr. Obama offered his administration's opening argument.

SCOTT HORSLEY: President-elect Barack Obama opened his news conference with more grim economic news. Initial claims for unemployment hit their highest level in a quarter century. This might seem like an inopportune time for the government to sink more money into improving healthcare and trying to make it more widely available, but Mr. Obama says the U.S. can't afford to wait.

(Soundbite of press conference)

President-elect BARACK OBAMA (Democratic Senator, Illinois): Close to 50 percent of family bankruptcies are caused because of a healthcare crisis. We know the strains that are being placed on businesses as a consequence of rising healthcare costs. So, this has to be intimately woven into our overall healthcare - our overall economic-recovery plan.

SCOTT HORSLEY: Former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle is expected to lead that effort as the new Health and Human Services secretary. Mr. Obama says Daschle will play a central role in drafting his health plan and trying to steer it through Congress.

President-elect OBAMA: He knows how to reach across the aisle and bridge bipartisan divides. And he has the trust of folks from every angle of this issue: doctors, nurses and patients, unions and businesses, hospitals and advocacy groups, all of whom will have a seat at the table as we craft our plan.

HORSLEY: The last big plan to reform healthcare, during the Clinton administration, was criticized for being drafted largely behind closed doors. Daschle promises this effort will involve a lot more grassroots participation.

(Soundbite of press conference)

Secretary-designate TOM DASCHLE (Health and Human Services): Over the next few weeks, we will be coordinating thousands of healthcare discussions in homes all across the country, where ordinary Americans can share their ideas about what's broken and how to fix it.

HORSLEY: The president-elect was also asked about a political breakdown here in his home state of Illinois. Governor Rod Blagojevich was arrested Tuesday and charged with, among other things, trying to sell Obama's vacant Senate seat. As governor, Blagojevich has the authority to appoint a successor for that seat, and prosecutors say he hoped to collect either cash, campaign contributions or perhaps a Cabinet post in return. Through his attorney, the governor denies any wrongdoing. Mr. Obama says he personally had no contact with the governor. He promised a full accounting of any staff contacts within the next few days.

(Soundbite of press conference)

President-elect OBAMA: I am confident that no representatives of mine would have any part of any deals related to this seat. I think the materials released by the U.S. attorney reflect that fact.

HORSLEY: Asked whether the political climate in Illinois fosters a culture of corruption, Mr. Obama said there are some politicians in every state who will try to use their office not for the public good, but for narrow personal or political gain.

(Soundbite of press conference)

President-elect OBAMA: Our whole campaign was about changing that view of politics and restoring a sense that when people of good will come together and are serious about confronting the challenges that we face, that not only can that be good policy, but you know what? It can be good politics as well. It turns out that the American people are hungry for that, and you can get elected by playing it straight.

HORSLEY: The president-elect is trying to maintain his focus on those policy goals, even amidst the distraction of a hometown political scandal. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Chicago.

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