Obama Defends Stimulus, Health Care Efforts


By Adriel Bettelheim

President Obama plans to huddle with his Cabinet and top advisers on Friday and Saturday to review lessons learned from his first six months in office. There’s bound to be some gnashing of teeth over the pace of the health care overhaul, and also some satisfaction over signs the economy is staggering back.

But based on his remarks at Wednesday’s town halls in Raleigh, N.C. and Bristol, Va., don’t expect a major recalibration of the administration’s message.

Obama continued to strenuously defend economic relief efforts launched in the aftermath of last fall’s financial crisis and lay some blame at the feet of former President George W. Bush. And he eagerly portrayed himself as a responsible steward of taxpayers’ money, to deflect persistent Republican charges that he’s incapable of controlling federal spending.

“I know that some critics in Washington think we’ve been slow to get these projects started,” Obama said in Raleigh, referring to work funded by the $787 billion economic stimulus package (PL 111-5). “They are saying we should have broken ground on all our highway projects on the first day. But everyone knows that’s impossible, especially because I wanted to be sure we did our homework and invested tax dollars only in those projects that actually created new jobs and jumpstarted our economy.”

Speaking in a state where the jobless rate is 11 percent, Obama said while there’s still much work left to be done to assure a complete recovery, “there is little debate that these steps, taken together, have helped stop our economic freefall.”

Obama also fired back at critics who blame him for running up the federal deficit, saying he inherited a $1.3 trillion shortfall. Without mentioning Bush by name, Obama said the staggering deficit was “a debt that is partially a result of two tax cuts that went primarily to the wealthiest few and a Medicare drug program, none of which was paid for.”

Finally, Obama continued to subtly recalibrate his health care message, casting the debate as one that revolves around curbing insurance companies’ less-savory business practices.

He outlined a series of consumer-protection measures aimed at preventing health plans from denying coverage to individuals who have preexisting medical conditions, dropping coverage for individuals who become seriously ill or charging unlimited out-of-pocket expenses. He also said the health overhaul would force the plans to pay for preventive care and routine checkups and remove arbitrary caps on the amount of coverage individuals can receive in a given year or in a lifetime.

Of course, many of these proposals aren’t major sticking points in the current debate. But talk about contentious stuff like public insurance options and how to pay for the overhaul should probably best be left to staff retreats and closed-door negotiating sessions on Capitol Hill.

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