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Obama Dispenses Hugs (and Policy Analysis) in the Midwest

By Alexis Simendinger - August 16, 2011

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Obama tugged the topic of health care into his first, hour-long town-hall session, using Medicare as the excuse to speak about a sensitive topic that is more directly tied to the deficit debate than to America’s preoccupation with jobs. Obama discussed last year’s health reform law -- a bully pulpit rarity these days -- defending provisions of the Affordable Care Act that he said are important.

Republicans, he said, want to transform Medicare into a voucher program that would leave older Americans to fend for themselves in the health insurance marketplace. If upper-income Americans paid higher taxes, he suggested, deficit reduction would not need to lean so heavily on Medicare to provide such substantial cost savings over 10 years.

“I think there are better ways for us to manage the Medicare problem than to put a burden on seniors. And one example is, if I were paying my fair share of taxes, then we don’t have to put that kind of burden on seniors,” Obama said.

On Monday, the president fielded a handful of polite, substantive questions about health care, suggesting that in the Midwest, jobs and the economy are not the only worries. Obama was asked about the high costs of prescription drugs, the opt-out allowances for corporations, the fate of the new health care law in the courts, and the failure to enact health care coverage that covers all Americans. Obama’s replies were lengthy, wonky, at times defensive, and not always entirely clear to people not steeped in the details of the health law.

“This was a landmark piece of legislation . . . and it was entirely consistent with what I campaigned on,” Obama said of the health care law at his Monday evening event in Decorah, Iowa.

He defended the law’s mandate that everyone be insured or face potential fines, a provision of the law ruled unconstitutional last week by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. By a 2-to-1 decision, the appeals court said Congress does not have the power to require all Americans to buy health insurance. While the court struck down the insurance mandate, it agreed that the rest of the law is constitutional.

Obama blamed part of the controversy on the fact that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who enacted the first version of a health insurance mandate in his state, is seeking the Republican presidential nomination. As a candidate, Romney has backtracked from the health law he signed, and Obama attempted to cast his challenger as a flip-flopper.

“This should not be controversial, but it has become controversial partly because of people’s view that -- well, let me just say this,” the president explained. “You’ve got a governor who’s running for president right now who instituted the exact same thing in Massachusetts -- this used to be a Republican idea, by the way, this whole idea of the individual mandate, and suddenly some -- it’s like they got amnesia. It’s like, ‘Oh, this is terrible; this is going to take away freedom for Americans all over the world, all over the country.’ So that’s a little puzzling.”

The president arrived in the Midwest prepared with a new rejoinder to the condemnations by Republican presidential candidates and GOP lawmakers that the health law, which phases in through 2014, as “Obamacare.”

“I have no problem with folks saying ‘Obama cares,’ ” he said to applause. “I do care. If the other side wants to be the folks who don’t care, that’s fine with me.”

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Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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