Obama Deploys Personal Presidential Touch in Health Care Push

AP

AP
The final drive for health care reform is on, and President Obama has shifted into high-gear. But unlike the fired-up speeches he delivered recently in the suburbs of Philadelphia, St. Louis and Cleveland, for the past few days he's been in stealth mode - doing his work behind closed doors.

Yes, it's time for: The Personal Presidential Touch.

White House officials say Mr. Obama has met in the Oval Office, or talked by phone, with more than two dozen Democrats in the past three days. They say about half the lobbying sessions have been in person, half over the phone. The president has kept his public schedule light so he can twist as many arms as possible.

The White House calls it "time well spent" and says the conversations "are making a difference." The president, they claim, has already convinced at least a few Democrats to switch from no to yes on health care, and persuaded others to hold fast to their yes votes. Democratic sources on Capitol Hill tell me the president is doing an effective job of closing the deal.

A couple examples: When Rep. Dennis Kucinich announced his plan to support the bill he made quite clear it was the president who pushed him over the finish line. And Rep. Dan Maffei of upstate New York says the president was behind his decision to vote yes.

"He [the president] was very persuasive that this is not one of those things that we can come back next week or next Congress and do it better," Maffei told CBS affiliate WTVH in Syracuse, N.Y.

So how is the president doing it?

Well, the vast majority of the wavering Democrats are moderate to conservative, so sources say Mr. Obama is focusing on arguments that appeal to them - for example, stressing advantages for small business, like tax credits to help insure their workers. And he's using his prowess as a constitutional law professor to try to convince socially conservative Democrats that the bill bans federal funding of abortion, contrary to claims of anti-abortion activists. The president is also using the new numbers from the CBO -- that health reform would cut the deficit by $1.3 trillion over the next two decades -- in his sessions with fiscal conservatives.

There have been reports that the president is also giving some wavering Democrats his version of the "win one for the Gipper" speech -- stressing that he personally needs their votes, that if health care reform fails, his presidency will be severely weakened - and that the entire Democratic agenda will be imperiled.

Robert Gibbs
CBS/Mark Knoller
I asked about that at today's briefing -- which was held outside in the Rose Garden on a beautiful spring day -- and Robert Gibbs was, well, evasive:

Question: "There's a report out there that says the president told some members that the fate of his presidency depends on passing health care reform. Is that true? Has he said that?"

Gibbs: "I have -- I'm not aware of that, but I can certainly check again."

I'm not holding my breath as I wait for him to get back to me.

The president did make one public appearance on health care in the midst of his closed door sessions -- an interview with Bret Baier Wednesday of Fox News. It quickly turned ugly, as Baier repeatedly interrupted, and the president was just as feisty in fighting back.

The bottom line: Mr. Obama is confident health care reform will pass, and he has no problem with the House using the "Slaughter Rule" to avoid a direct vote on the Senate bill. Americans are focused on what's in the bill, he said, not on the procedure for passing it.

Some may wonder why the president would agree to an interview with a network that he once accused of being "entirely devoted to attacking my administration." The White House says he did it because some moderate to conservative Democrats -- and their constituents -- watch Fox News, and he's reaching out to them.

One senior official told me: "It shows we'll go ANYWHERE to get our message out."

More Coverage of the Health Care Reform Debate:

The Hunt for Health Care Votes: Democrats to Watch
Dem Health Care Bill Pegged at $940B Over 10 Years
Washington Unplugged: Nancy Cordes on the Final Countdown
Dueling News Conferences
Obama Cancels Foreign Trip for Health Care Push
Pelosi: Health Care Bill "Best Initiative" for the Economy
GOP Plots Ways to Fight Health Care
Obama's Health Care Plan: What Do You Think?
CBSNews.com Special Report: Health Care


(CBS)
Chip Reid is CBS News' chief White House correspondent. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here.

  • Chip Reid

    Chip Reid is CBS News' national correspondent.

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