Still, Obama didn’t put healthcare reform on the backburner, saying instead that he has no plans to move backward on the issue, despite its unpopularity.
“I didn’t choose to tackle this issue to get some legislative victory under my belt. And by now it should be fairly obvious that I didn’t take on healthcare because it would good politics,â€ Obama, conceding that he and his administration did not adequately explain its importance more clearly to voters.
He challenged lawmakers from both parties who think they may have a better approach that will accomplish the goals of bringing down premiums and the deficit, expand coverage, strengthen Medicare for seniors and stop insurance company abuses to share their ideas.
“Do not walk away from reform. Not now,â€ urged Obama. “Not when we are so close. Let us find a way to come together and finish the job for the American people.â€
Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-New York) said that jobs and healthcare are intertwined and people worried about the former cannot discount the latter.
“The fact of the matter is that healthcare is jobs. We have about $350 billion in deficits in the 50 states right now. Of that, between 25% to 30% is healthcare with the growth of spending and the uninsured,â€ Weiner said. “So if you’re concerned about states having to lay off people, to raise taxes and punish jobs, you’ve got to be concerned about healthcare.â€ As a result of Obama’s remarks, Weiner added, lawmakers can stop focusing on the 60th senator without whom the upper chamber felt it couldn’t pass a healthcare bill, and think about what’s best for the country. Obama’s next step, counseled Weiner, is to take the argument to the American people.
Obama received tepid response from both Democrats and Republicans on plans to freeze spending for three years. His argument is that like the nation’s cash-strapped families, the government must learn to live on a budget.
“It sounds like a plan, but of course you have to know more about it. The reason there’s uncertainty is that many aren’t sure yet what that means,â€ said Rep. Danny Davis (D-Illinois). “I don’t mind cutting but not essential things that help lift people up by their bootstraps or that will prevent us from rebuilding deteriorated communities in America.â€
The president also challenged the Senate, which is infamous for its slow movement, procedural hurdles, and horse trading that slowed down the chamber’s healthcare bill, to act swiftly to take up legislation already passed in the house, on such issues as jobs, energy, education, and a pay-as-you-go law. He called out the seven Senate Republicans who co-sponsored legislation to create a bipartisan fiscal commission and then voted against it on the day before his address, and announced that he plans to issue an executive order to move forward on it.
Obama also used his speech to change the political tone and gamesmanship taking place in Washington. Frustrated with members of his own party, Obama reminded Democrats that they have the largest majority in decades and it must not be wasted. He told Senate Republicans that if they insist on 60 rather than 51 votes to pass legislation that they must also take responsibility for governing and that saying no to everything isn’t leadership.
“I will not give up on trying to change the tone of our politics. I know it’s an election year. And after last week, it’s clear that campaign fever has come even earlier than usual. But we still need to govern,â€ the president said, adding that he plans to hold monthly meetings with lawmakers from both parties and chambers.
Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-New York) said that the meetings would force Republicans to come up with ideas and prevent them from getting away with just saying no.
“Obama has made compromises to the point where he was upsetting the base. With this transparency, people will have to come on board and the Senate won’t be able to continue to be a graveyard for bills that are good for the American people,â€ Meeks said.
Whether Obama will be able to fulfill his promises remains to be seen. He faces an uphill struggle among the American people and other politicians. In fact, Gallup Poll finds that Obama is the most politically polarizing president in recent history, with 88% of Democrats approving of his job performance and only just a 23% approval from Republicans.
Deborah Creighton Skinner and the Associated Press contributed to this article.