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Obama seeks to lift sagging agenda

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Acknowledging that his $787 billion economic stimulus package has not worked as well as he'd expected, President Obama on Tuesday said Americans should not be satisfied with the pace of the recovery, even as he found himself on the defensive over Democratic health care reforms.

In the testiest news conference of his young administration, the president said forcing insurance companies to compete against government-subsidized plans would make the private plans better, even though he backed away from his pledge that no Americans would have to change plans.

Mr. Obama fought back against criticism that he didn't handle Iran's elections crisis well and chided a reporter who asked about his cigarette addiction, telling her, "You just think it's neat to ask me about my smoking, as opposed to it being relevant to my new law," which he signed Monday.

Mr. Obama's news conference - the eighth of his tenure - was an effort to get his vast, struggling agenda back on track. His push for health care reform is bogged down on Capitol Hill, and his climate-change bill has undergone a major overhaul, but could receive a House vote as early as Friday.

In addressing the economy, which continues to sputter, the president said Americans should not be happy with the pace of recovery, and neither was he.

"I don't feel satisfied with the progress that we've made," he said. "We've got to get our [stimulus] money out faster. We've got to make sure that the programs that we put in place are working the way they're supposed to."

As an example, he said he has had to upbraid his staff over a mortgage-assistance program that isn't aggressive enough in helping homeowners.

Earlier this year, the administration said the worst the jobs situation would get would be an 8 percent unemployment rate, even if the government did nothing. On Tuesday, however, Mr. Obama acknowledged that the rate would soon top 10 percent.

He conceded his administration got the projections wrong, but said things would have been worse still without the $787 billion stimulus package, adding that there's no question state government workers' jobs have been saved under the program.

On health care, the president defended his call for a government-sponsored health care plan to compete with private insurers' plans, saying insurance companies should be able to handle the competition if they are truly competitive.

The president plans to hold a televised town hall on the health care at the White House on Wednesday to continue his effort to jump-start the debate.

But his efforts suffered a deep blow last week when the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the official scorekeeper for legislation, said the Democrats' reform blueprint will cost more than $1 trillion and will kick millions of people out of their insurance plans.

Mr. Obama has repeatedly said Americans who like their company insurance wouldn't have to change, but he appeared to back away from that Tuesday. He said the government would not force anyone into a government plan, but said companies may drop or switch insurance plans and workers would face changes anyway.

"Let's assume that nothing happened. I can guarantee you that there's the possibility for a whole lot of Americans out there that they're not going to end up having the same health care they have," he said.

In the face of the damaging CBO calculations, Mr. Obama has seen support slip among some of his own party, including California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who is now urging a slower path on health care.

For their part, Republicans said Mr. Obama lost credibility by changing his stance on private insurance plans.

"It is very disturbing that the president refused to stand by his promise that Americans would be able to keep their doctor and health care plan if they wanted to," said Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan, the top Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, which will help write a health care bill.

He said that by allowing companies to drop coverage, Mr. Obama is "caving in" to Democrats in Congress who are pushing for more government control.

After a quick start with the stimulus program, Mr. Obama's legislative agenda has bogged down as polls show Americans wary of the amount of spending and of expanded government control.

Originally scheduled for the White House's Rose Garden, the news conference was moved inside to the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room because of the heat and humidity.

The president used the 55-minute-long event to press for action on curbing greenhouse-gas emissions through a market-based carbon-emissions permit system, saying the costs will fall largely on polluters.

The president stuck to what appeared to be an optimistic Democratic message that downplays the bill's costly requirements to force reductions in carbon-dioxide emissions. The president called them "incentives that will spur the development of new sources of energy." He also stressed that the bill would produce savings on energy costs and create domestic jobs.

Mr. Obama also found himself on the defensive on several fronts, including his response to Iran's elections. Asked how he responded to congressional critics, such as Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, Mr. Obama said he's got a broader responsibility.

"Only I'm the president of the United States. And I've got responsibilities in making certain that we are continually advancing our national security interests and that we are not used as a tool to be exploited by other countries," he said.

Among the sharper exchanges was Mr. Obama's rebuke to a reporter from the McClatchy Newspapers chain. The reporter asked whether the president still smokes regularly, saying it was of interest because Mr. Obama signed a bill into law this week imposing hefty regulations on tobacco companies.

He said he is "95 percent cured" of his habit, though he said, "There are times where I mess up."

He said he doesn't smoke in front of his children.

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