Obama to focus on health care at news conference

Wednesday, July 22, 2009 | 5:09 p.m. CDT; updated 11:15 a.m. CDT, Thursday, September 3, 2009

WASHINGTON — Six months into his presidency, Barack Obama now owns America's problems and a solid but slipping approval rating. He goes before the nation Wednesday night to defend his economic decisions and press his fight for the health care overhaul he said is desperately needed.

Holding his 10th extended news conference, Obama will renew a message that the White House said he cannot pound enough: making health coverage affordable and sustainable is so vital that anything less will erode the economic stability of families, businesses and even the government.

"I want to keep the pressure on," said the president, who has been hitting the issue more aggressively in the past 10 days.

Republican leaders have contended Obama's push and emerging congressional bills are rushed and risky, and some conservative members of the president's own Democratic Party are balking, too. A nervous public is being hit by TV ads and claims from all sides.

Other issues haven't gone away. Still looming are an economy that keeps losing jobs, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Obama's January deadline to shut down the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.

The timing is critical as Obama appeals Wednesday night to a national viewing audience.

He has said he wants the House and Senate to vote on comprehensive health care bills before they break for the summer, a window that is scheduled to shut by the first week in August. That timetable is growing tenuous, though, with up-and-down developments by the day.

So Obama has been everywhere on health care: giving Rose Garden statements, visiting health clinics, talking to bloggers, granting interviews.

"He's prepared to do this as many times as he has to," said Michael Traugott, a University of Michigan professor who specializes in political communications. "The president has a special advantage because he's readily identifiable. The Congress is a less well known institution and less popular in the public's eye."

Both Republican and Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill were holding their own news events on health care Wednesday. House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio said of the health care legislation: "Mr. President, it's time to scrap this bill. Let's start over in a bipartisan way."

This is a big test for Obama.

His approval rating stands at 55 percent, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll, down from 64 percent in late May and early June. Some 50 percent approve of his handling of health care, but 43 percent disapprove, and that number has risen sharply since April.

With public opinion still waiting to be shaped on health care, and with the legislative details in flux, what's clear is that people care.

Nearly 80 percent of those polled said health care is an important issue to them. Obama is seeking to extend coverage to millions who don't have it and to hold down the long-term costs of health care. How to pay remains a complex political question.

It didn't help the White House when the Congressional Budget Office last week said the bills moving through Congress would add to the nation's long-term costs, not reduce them. Obama has been emphatic that he will not sign a bill that adds to the government's deficit.

Meanwhile, unemployment is at 9.5 percent and rising.

Talk of Obama inheriting an economic mess from George W. Bush is fading, and the American public is now grading the new president. His approval rating on handling the economy has been slipping as impatience grows.

Obama said the country is moving in the right direction, and he points to legislation from his first half-year in office: a massive economic stimulus bill that is ultimately designed to work over two years, a law to overhaul the credit card industry, and another to keep tobacco companies from marketing to children.

Still, he told CBS News on Tuesday: "As long as the economy is still shedding jobs, and people don't feel confident about a recovery, then, you know, I think there's going to continue to be frustration. And rightfully so."

At the news conference, Obama is expected to speak about his steps to turn around the economy before he pivots to health care.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Wednesday that Obama is "feeling optimistic that he's on track, after his first six months in office, to fulfill his promise to sign a health care reform bill before the end of the year."

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