Despite the dim prospects of getting a bill from Congress in the next couple of weeks, President Barack Obama defended his insistence on an August deadline for health care legislation, saying there is no time to waste because the American people need relief now.
"If you don't set deadlines in this town, things don't happen," the president said in a prime time press conference tonight.
However, he hedged his bet on the deadline by noting that if the bill Congress produces is not a good one by his standard, then he will not sign it.
"I won't sign a bill that doesn't reduce health care inflation so that families, as well as government, are saving money," he said. "I'm not going to sign a bill that I don't think will work."
Obama also said he would reject any legislation that is "primarily funded through taxing middle class families."
But Obama continued to push both the House and Senate to pass health care reform bills before they break for their August recess and urge lawmakers, especially Republicans, to move beyond the "game of politics."
"This debate is not a game for these Americans [affected by problems with the current system], and they cannot afford to wait for reform any longer," Obama said in the East Room of the White House. "They are counting on us to get this done. They are looking to us for leadership. And we must not let them down."
Obama used the presidential bully pulpit to project his talking points on health care reform and, at times, reverted to the professorial tone that marked the press conferences early in his presidency. In the nearly hour-long press conference, Obama only called on 10 reporters and delivered a seven-minute answer to one question.
Obama reiterated that health care reform is tied to improving the nation's struggling economy and said several times that he inherited a massive deficit from the Bush administration.
"If we do not control these costs, we will not be able to control our deficit," he said. "If we do not reform health care, your premiums and out-of-pocket costs will continue to skyrocket. If we do not act, 14,000 Americans will continue to lose their health insurance every single day. These are the consequences of inaction. These are the stakes of the debate we're having right now."
Obama also reasserted his pledge to not let health care reform increase the nation's deficit.
"I have also pledged that health insurance reform will not add to our deficit over the next decade -- and I mean it," he said.
Obama commited to getting legislation finished this year.
"We will pass reform that lowers cost, promotes choice and provides coverage that every American can count on, and we will do it this year," he said.
Obama heads to Ohio Thursday for a tour of the Cleveland Clinic, which he cited tonight as "a role model for some of the kind of changes that we want to see."
"They've set up a system where patient care is the number-one concern, not bureaucracy, what forms have to be filled out, what do we get reimbursed for," the president said. "Those are changes that I think the American people want to see."
The president will also hold a town hall event on health care at a high school in the Cleveland suburbs.
Obama defended the stimulus plan, which has been criticized for not doing enough to create jobs quickly and being too costly.
The president said that as a result of his administration's actions, including the $787 billion package, "we have been able to pull our economy back from the brink."
But he cautioned that the nation still has "a long way to go."
In an interview with Washington Post editorial page editor Fred Hiatt this afternoon, Obama said this is the best opportunity to get health care reform passed and if it fails, nothing will happen for at least four years.
"If health care reform fails, there is no way that Congress is going to take up a serious effort to control health care inflation -- there's no way that we're going to pass the kinds of changes we've already talked about in Medicare, for example, in the absence of a more comprehensive reform package," he said. "And so what we're going to have is a situation in which it's just business as usual for, I think, the next four years at minimum, and maybe the next eight -- in which case, the problem is just going to keep on getting worse and worse."
In his fourth prime time press conference from the White House, the president aimed his message directly at the American people, especially those skeptical about his push for reform.
"I realize that with all the charges and criticisms being thrown around in Washington, many Americans may be wondering, 'What's in this for me? How does my family stand to benefit from health insurance reform?'" he said.
Obama's Health Care Push
The president has been consistently pushing Congress to get a bill passed in the House and Senate before lawmakers recess in August, but that looks increasingly unlikely.
Democrats have expressed reservations about the deadline and Republicans say the president is moving too fast.
"Members have concerns, and they're not just Blue Dogs," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters Tuesday, referring to the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition of House Democrats. "I want to make it very clear that there's progressives, Blue Dogs and everybody in between who have expressed concerns, and we're working on that."
The chief concerns among Democrats include the costs to overhaul the program and tax increases on the wealthy.
In an ABC News/Washington Post poll released Monday, just under half, 49 percent, of Americans said they approve of Obama's handling of health care, down 8 percent from when he took office.
Eight in 10 in the poll expressed concern that reform could reduce their quality, coverage and choice of care, and increase their costs, government bureaucracy and the deficit, with anywhere from 51 to 62 percent "very" concerned about these outcomes. Fifty-eight percent of Americans said they were doubtful that they would be able to keep the coverage they have now without any changes, even though the president has said repeatedly that the choice will remain.
The president dismissed the sinking approval ratings on health care, saying in a PBS interview Monday that "it means what we're doing is hard."