Obama: Sebelius Didn't Misspeak on Public Option

Updated 3:06 p.m. ET

President Obama said today in an interview today that Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius did not "misspeak" on Sunday when she said a government-run health care plan, known as the public option, was "not the essential element" of the administration's health care push.

"She really didn't misspeak. The surprising thing is she'd been saying this all along. She said the same thing a month ago… Our position hasn't changed," Mr. Obama said in a radio interview with talk show host Michael Smerconish, who is seen as a conservative but endorsed Mr. Obama last year.

The president said his administration's position in favor of the public option remains the same. Addressing the controversy, he said: "the press got excited and some folks on the left got a little excited."

Mr. Obama was on Smerconish's show as part of his continuing push toward a health care overhaul. Smerconish's nationally syndicated show is based at Philadelphia's WPHT, which is a CBS Radio station. Mr. Obama looked relaxed as he took questions from listeners, and stayed on message as he tries to regain a foothold in health care reform debate.

Mr. Obama said the most important goal of the health care overhaul was to control costs as he emphasized the other parts of the plan as he has all the month.

The president laid out some "bullet points" about what had to be in a bill that he would sign. He said a bill would have to be deficit neutral, have to reduce overall health care costs, include health insurance reforms for people who have insurance and have a health insurance exchange where people could shop among a number of different plans.

"What we've said is that there are a number of components to health care," he told Smerconish. "Choice, competition, reducing cost, those are the things I want to see accomplished in this health care bill."

In response to a question from a listener, Mr. Obama reiterated that illegal immigrants would not be covered under the plans being discussed.

"None of the bills that have been voted on in Congress, and none of the proposals coming out of the White House propose giving coverage to illegal immigrants -- none of them," Mr. Obama said. "So everybody who is listening out there, when you start hearing that somehow this is all designed to provide health insurance to illegal immigrants, that is simply not true and has never been the case."

When a caller named Joe said he thought he sensed the president's "knees buckling" over the reform, Mr. Obama said he was confident that Congress could get a deal done. He said wanted to find consensus with Republicans, but he would not give up on his principles.

"I guarantee you, Joe, we are going to get health care done," he said.

Mr. Obama also addressed some other topics in the news today in the interview. He said that his administration expressed their opposition to Scotland over the release of convicted Pan Am Flight 103 bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi to Libya. He said he thinks al-Megrahi should be transferred to house arrest when he arrives in Libya.

"We're now in contact with the Libyan government and want to make sure that if in fact this transfer has taken place that he's not welcomed back in some way but instead should be under house arrest," Mr. Obama said. (Read more here.)

On the reports that the "Cash for Clunkers" program will soon come to a close, Mr. Obama praised the program and said this was a "high class problem" to have. "This is a good news story," he said.

Lastly, he also said that the Afghan elections today appeared to be successful and that his administration continues to ramp up pressure on al Qaeda and the Taliban.

"The goal here is essentially to have a pincher where we are squeezing them on both sides, we're eliminating their allies, it's making it more difficult for them to communicate, making it more difficult for them to operate safe havens, and over time what we hope to do is to flush them out," he said.

Later today, Mr. Obama continues his health care push ahead of his vacation by addressing supporters at a forum sponsored by Organizing for America, the grassroots organization that formed out of his campaign last year.

CBSNews.com Special Report: Health Care