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President Barack Obama blitzed the Sunday morning airwaves to pitch health reform but found himself on the defensive — denying the plan breaks his campaign promise not to raise taxes on the middle class and insisting the public insurance option isn’t dead.
And his attempt to rally Latino voters around the cause instead was met with sharp questioning from a relative newcomer to the Sunday scene – the Spanish-language network Univision – over Obama’s plan to deny illegal immigrants the benefits of health reform.
“This isn’t a radical plan,” Obama said at one point, on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos. “I’m simply trying to deal with what everybody acknowledges in a big problem.”
Yet in the five back-to-back interviews, Obama frequently lumped himself in with past presidents who had pushed through major societal changes – citing the serious resistance to his ideas among Republicans and many in the public as evidence that he’s on the right track.
“They, you know, were mad at FDR when he started Social Security. They were mad at Lyndon Johnson when he started Medicare. And, you know, I think that the fact that this has become such a heated debate, is a sign that we're really trying to change the system. That we're not just tinkering around the edges,” Obama told Univision’s Jorge Ramos.
In the interviews taped Friday – the first time a sitting president has done five Sunday shows back-to-back – Obama broke little new ground in how he tried to sell his own program, which has sharply divided his own party and left many in the public confused and deeply skeptical.
Obama insisted health reform will pass this year, with or without Republican votes – suggesting that he’s prepared to go through a legislative process in the Senate that only requires a simple majority of 51 Democrats.
And he insisted that the public health insurance option – a favorite of liberals in Obama’s party – can still survive in the final health legislation, despite the fact that the latest Senate bill drops it entirely and even Obama has sent strong signals he could live without it in a final compromise.
“I absolutely do not believe that it’s dead,” Obama told Univision. “I think that it’s something that we can still include as part of a comprehensive reform.”
Also, Obama promised he would not break his campaign pledge of no tax increase for the middle class and rejected the notion that a requirement that all Americans own insurance – and would fine them up to $3,800 per family if they do not -- amounts to a backdoor tax increase.
“For us to say that you've got to take a responsibility to get health insurance is absolutely not a tax increase,” Obama said on ABC’s “This Week.” “What it’s saying is that we’re not going to have other people carrying your burdens for you any more than the fact that right now everybody in America, just about, has to get auto insurance. Nobody considers that a tax increase.”
Critics of Obama’s proposals say that taxes and higher fees on insurance companies, drug makers and other industries would simply be passed on to consumers – also amounting to a hidden cost in the plan.
After he was pressed on it some more, in a testy exchange where Stephanopoulos at one point read the definition of “tax” from Merriam Webster's Dictionary, Obama held firm.
“My critics say everything is a tax increase. My critics say that I'm taking over every sector of the economy. You know that,” Obama said.
“But you reject that it's a tax increase?” the host said.
“I absolutely reject that notion,” Obama said.
The president rejected a suggestion that the middle class will be burdened by insurance companies passing on additional fees or cuts in profits to consumers. He also said he’s warned labor unions that their members with so-called Cadillac insurance plans may face new fees.
“I've been talking to the unions about it,” Obama said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “I've been honest with them about it. What I've said is, is that we want to make sure that guys are protected, guys and gals who’ve got a good benefit, that they are protected, but we also want to make sure that we're using our health dollars wisely. And I do think that giving a disincentive to insurance companies to offer Cadillac plans that don't make people healthier is part of the way that we're going to bring down health care costs for everybody over the long term.”
The president’s interviews aired as his top legislative priority is at a critical moment in Congress, with the release of the Senate Finance bill last week that many insider see as a likely vehicle for a final compromise. Obama stopped short of endorsing the bill by Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.), but called it a strong and serious effort to find common ground.
But part of Obama's mission Sunday was to quiet critics and keep members of his own party from fracturing the debate. Even as he conceded that health care reform is taking longer to accomplish that he thought, Obama said he does not think his plan is too ambitious.
“I don’t think I’ve promised too much at all,” he said on “Face the Nation.”
In his Univision interview, Obama conceded: “Healthcare has taken longer than I would have liked.”
Obama offered little of the sharp criticism of Republicans that he’s made a crux of his health care events. He told Univision “there’s some people who just cynically want to defeat me politically.”
But he spent time defending aspects of his reform plan that have drawn criticism from members of his own party.
Obama insisted that those enrolled in Medicare will not see a change in their coverage, a promise Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) has challenged. Nelson wants Congress to include an amendment in legislation to guarantee that cuts to the Medicare Advantage program will not force people to lose the coverage they have.
Obama did not endorse such an amendment, saying his plan’s changes to Medicare Advantage are designed to stop insurance companies for “overcharging massively” for things “ordinary Medicare does just as good.”
“These folks are going to be able to get Medicare that is just as good, provides the same benefits,” Obama said on “This Week.”
Obama also stuck to his pledge that a reform bill will not cover illegal immigrants.
“Here's what I've said, and I will repeat: I don't think that illegal immigrants should be covered under this health care plan,” Obama said to CNN. “There should be a verification mechanism in place. We do that for a whole range of existing social programs. And I think that's a pretty straightforward principle that will be met.”
If an illegal immigrant wants to buy private insurance “that’s between them and their private insurer,” Obama said on Univision.
Obama dodged a question from Univision’s Ramos about whether he has enough votes among Democrats in Congress to pass a bill right now. “I'd love to get Republican votes, but I don't count on them,” Obama said. “And I'm confident that we're gonna get healthcare passed.”
“But do you, at this point, do you have the votes?” Ramos replied.
“I'm confident we're gonna get healthcare passed,” Obama said.