WASHINGTON — Six rocky months after winning passage of the landmark health care overhaul law, President Obama celebrated the half-year mark by assembling at a sunny, backyard gathering in the Virginia suburbs a sampling of Americans who he said are "already benefiting."
Yet even before he started touting early provisions of the law that take effect today, the president sought to counter the belief among some that health care distracted him from addressing what many voters view as the more pressing matter: the economy.
"Obviously the economy has been uppermost in our minds," said Obama, standing in his shirtsleeves on the back patio of the Falls Church home of Paul and Frances Brayshaw.
He argued that addressing the high cost and limited accessibility of health care was just as fundamental to the nation's fiscal health. "Sometimes I fault myself for not having been able to make the case more clearly to the country," he said.
"Health care was one of those issues that we could no longer ignore. … Anybody out there who is concerned about the deficit: The single biggest driver of our deficit is the ever-escalating costs of health care. … It was bankrupting families, companies, and our government."
Gail O'Brien of Keene, N.H., a Montessori school teacher whose employer does not offer insurance, spoke of her anguish on being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma earlier this year.
Convinced that she would have to tap the savings she and her husband had amassed for their two sons' college tuition, O'Brien said she was elated to learn that she could instead apply to one of the new state-based "high risk" pools the law recently established for people with pre-existing conditions.
"You don't know how this has changed my life," said O'Brien, who wore a blue scarf to cover the hair she has lost through her cancer treatments. "I personally thank you, President Obama."
The American public as a whole is proving a harder sell. In the latest Kaiser tracking poll, 43 percent of Americans said they had favorable impressions of the new law and 45 percent held unfavorable ones, numbers virtually identical to what they were in May. In an Associated Press poll released last week, 41 percent said they support the health care reforms, matching the number backing the bill on the eve of its passage in March.