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Obama Seeks to Re-Energize Health Care Debate Amid Sagging Polls


The ongoing national debate about how to reform the U.S. health-care system has become the top political issue in the country in recent weeks. President Barack Obama is making a renewed effort to take charge of the debate, mindful of public opinion polls that suggest growing doubts about his handling of the issue.

Her name is Molly Secours, a health-care activist from Tennessee who fought a battle against cancer two years ago that almost sent her into bankruptcy even though she had health insurance.

"What we are looking for, what we are asking for, what we are begging for, what I am begging for is a current health reform package so that people like me can receive adequate health care and are not fiscally and physically ruined by getting a diagnosis of cancer," she said.

Secours appeared at a news conference with congressional Democrats pushing for health-care reform, which has become President Obama's top political priority.

Mr. Obama and his Democratic allies in Congress want to extend health-care coverage to millions of Americans who cannot afford it. At the same time, they seek to reduce the skyrocketing cost of health care that threatens to overwhelm individuals, businesses and the government.

The president's most recent news conference was devoted to the health-care effort.

"If we do not control these costs, we will not be able to control our deficit. If we do not act, 14-thousand 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 are having right now," said the president.

The United States remains the only major industrialized nation without a comprehensive health-care plan, and politicians have wrestled with the issue for decades without success.

Republicans largely oppose the president's plan as too costly, and they also fear increased government involvement in the system will have a negative impact on medical care.

This is the Republican Party's national chairman, Michael Steele.

"The Barack Obama experiment with America is a risk our country cannot afford. It is too much, too fast, too soon," he said.

After months of being on the defensive in the aftermath of last November's presidential election, many Republicans see stopping the Obama health-care plan as an opportunity to turn their political fortunes around.

Public support for health-care reform slipping

Recent public-opinion polls show that while Mr. Obama remains personally popular, support for his policies on the economy and health-care reform are slipping.

Andy Barr is with the political website Politico, which conducted a recent poll.

"Across the board in this poll, trust has dropped off about ten percent for the president. Trust for some of his top programs including the economic stimulus package has dropped off, and you know there are some concerns for the other side of his legislative agenda," he said.

With all this as a backdrop, the president has refocused his energies in recent days on winning back public support for the health-care effort.

Matt Dallek is a political expert at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.

"He is attempting to really seize control over the health-care debate and to send a message to the country that, 'I am in charge, you know, I am the one running the show, and we have got to get reform passed," he said.

Dallek also said that by making health care his top priority, President Obama has raised the political stakes by gambling that he can pass an expensive reform plan at a time when the country struggles to recover from an economic downturn.

"He really has staked a large chunk of his first term in office, obviously we do not know if he is going to get a second one, on whether he can get health care done, and done right. I do not see how, if he does not get something passed, how he recovers, at least right away," he added.

Congress divided over reform

The president would prefer congressional action on health care within a matter of weeks, but even some Democrats believe it is more likely that the reform effort will drag on for months.

Richard Wolffe is a political analyst for MSNBC television and a guest on VOA's Press Conference USA program.

"With something as difficult and as big as remaking the health-care system in any country, especially in America, the chances are that the longer they debate this, the less will happen. So, he does have to drive this hard," he said.

But expert Matt Dallek believes opposition Republicans have raised enough questions about the reform effort to slow it down.

"Republicans have been able to get, I think, some traction with this idea that the government is expanding in all kinds of ways that are going to have unintended consequences and unforeseen effects on your lives," he said.

There are divisions over the reform effort among congressional Democrats as well. Conservative Democrats worry the estimated $1 trillion cost of overhauling health care would add to the already expanding government budget deficit.

In an effort to address those concerns at his news conference Wednesday, Mr. Obama said he would not sign a bill that adds to the deficit.

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