Obama takes healthcare effort to grass-roots level

President Obama plans today to take his case for healthcare reform to some of his staunchest supporters and harshest critics -- a two-pronged approach designed to energize his so-far lethargic base and gain ground on his critics by confronting them head-on.

The twin appeals reflect Obama's strategy at a crucial stage in the struggle: With prospects for real bipartisan agreement on a healthcare bill fading, the president is working harder to stimulate his grass-root forces and, at the same time, project an image of trying to move beyond the bitter partisanship of recent years.

Obama will hold a strategy session today with many of his supporters from the presidential campaign, a massive army that has yet to make its weight felt on healthcare.

He is also scheduled to sit down with one of the country's more conservative radio talk-show hosts for a broadcast from the White House.

The show will be hosted by Michael Smerconish, whose nationally syndicated show broadcasts from CBS Radio's WPHT in Philadelphia. Smerconish endorsed Obama for president.

From the beginning, Obama and congressional Democrats have been prepared to push ahead with a healthcare overhaul regardless of whether they could enlist substantial GOP support. At the same time, Obama has sought to cast himself as seeking a bipartisan approach -- if only to put the onus of naysaying onto the GOP.

For weeks, Obama has been traveling the country holding town hall meetings, stumping for his plans to redesign American healthcare.

Aides to the president insisted Wednesday that he still wants to put together a bipartisan plan and pass it with at least some Republican votes. But they also acknowledged that may not be possible.

New outreach

Faced with this reality, Obama is diversifying his outreach.

On Wednesday, he held two lengthy conference calls with religious leaders, arguing that individual Americans have more than self-interest to think of during the debate.

In a morning call with more than 1,000 rabbis, for example, Obama offered a message of moral obligation.

"He tried to root significant aspects of healthcare reform into a lot of the moral precepts that are fundamental to Judaism and religion generally," said Ron Pollack, executive director of Families USA and a healthcare advocate who joined the morning call with rabbis, many of whom are preparing messages for the High Holy Days.

"There are two impulses behind healthcare reform: One is altruism, and one is self interest," Pollack said. "He wants to make clear how this affects both things. With religious leaders, altruism gets more emphasis."

Conservative critics immediately counterattacked, with one prominent leader complaining that Obama was grasping for a religious message out of political desperation.

"The American people are showing they have no faith" in Obama's plan, said Family Research Council President Tony Perkins, "and he's now trying to use the faith language and the religious left to convince people that this is a moral issue."

Publicly, the White House and Democratic leaders in Congress continue to hold out hope for significant bipartisan agreement.

"The Finance Committee is on track to reach a bipartisan agreement on comprehensive healthcare reform," Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said Wednesday.

The Finance Committee is the last of five House and Senate committees to craft a blueprint for revamping healthcare. Three Republicans and three Democrats labored for weeks to reach an agreement, but the talks neared collapse before Congress began the August recess.

The group is scheduled to meet tonight via conference call and has set Sept. 15 as a target for concluding negotiations.

Recess revolts

But shadowing that effort are the political thunderclouds that spread during the recess, when the healthcare agenda was pummeled with criticism by Republicans and others.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the finance committee and the lawmaker considered most important to a deal, has seemed to turn more partisan and sour on Democratic proposals while speaking to constituents in his state this month.

Although he said Wednesday that he had not given up on the bipartisan talks, he is under political pressure to do so: Grassley, a pragmatist who usually works well with Baucus, is up for reelection in 2010 and could face a conservative primary challenge.

And although the Obama administration seemed to be making a big concession this week by backing away from its insistence on an optional public health insurance program, Republicans immediately swatted down the idea of a health-insurance cooperative, which many saw as an alternative

Republicans say they would be amenable to a more limited bill with changes that garner wide support, such as barring insurance companies from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions or charging higher premiums to women than men.

But some proponents are convinced that no compromise will break down GOP resistance to giving a legislative victory to Obama.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs insisted that the president isn't giving up on working with Republican leaders or others on an overhaul.

"The president believes strongly in working with Republicans and Democrats, independents, any who seek to reform healthcare," Gibbs said. "The president strongly believes that we're making progress."

Nevertheless, Gibbs didn't disagree with recent remarks by White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who said Republican leaders had made a strategic decision to defeat the healthcare proposal.

"Let's just say," Gibbs said, "I haven't seen anything that would persuade me otherwise."




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