WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama, normally a surefooted salesman, is struggling to convince Americans that the $1 trillion U.S. healthcare system overhaul he is pushing would be good for them.
After successfully pushing through a $787 billion economic stimulus plan and spending many billions more on bank and auto bailouts, Obama was forced to concede on Thursday that Congress will not approve healthcare legislation by his August deadline.
A healthcare overhaul was a centerpiece of Obama's presidential campaign and he has invested a great deal of his personal prestige and his six months in office on it.
He would suffer a stinging blow to his young presidency if it were to fail like President Bill Clinton's 1993 effort.
Obama pinpointed one problem he is having at a news conference on Wednesday night when he said Americans are understandably queasy about all the money being spent to stimulate the economy.
We're seeing numbers -- trillions here and trillions there. And so I think legitimately people are saying, 'look, we're in a recession, I'm cutting back, I'm having to give up things -- and yet all I see is government spending more and more money,' he said.
Americans are suffering from sacrifice overload, where people have seen their tax dollars spent to try to help the economy and have little to show for it yet, pollster John Zogby said.
Obama is probably right going after this right now, Zogby said. The difficulty is it's caught up in so many other activities, that it's very hard to sell the whole package to the American people.
Obama says the healthcare plans being pushed by Democrats in control of the U.S. Congress would ultimately reduce the U.S. budget deficit while at the same time improving health insurance coverage for millions of Americans.
But so far that argument has not taken hold and is proving to be a big challenge for Obama, as he looks ahead to a debate on the issue in autumn -- when Congress is also supposed to take up climate-change legislation.
Since Obama has offered few of his own legislative proposals, he has been left to comment on the ones circulating in congressional committees. Left open has been how to fully fund the $1 trillion, 10-year program.
WHO FOOTS THE BILL?
Obama for the first time on Wednesday embraced a surtax on millionaires, but there are concerns the cost of the overhaul would surpass the proposed taxes and savings.
Republicans contended that Obama's plan would drive up deficit spending despite the president's promise that he will not allow that to happen.
Both Democrat bills we've seen would saddle Americans with hundreds of billions of dollars of additional debt, making the situation even worse, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said.
Analysts said many Americans view the Democrats' plans as an attempt to get health insurance for 46 million Americans doing without, and that everyone else will subsidize it.
The fundamental problem is most Americans are happy with their own healthcare plan, said Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia.
So if they're happy with their own healthcare plan, why exactly should they change? He's saying they won't change but people don't wholly believe that.
Sabato predicted that Obama might be forced to accept a scaled-down version.
For the past 17 years, since Bill Clinton won the presidency, the Democrats' main argument for overhauling healthcare has been to take care of the uninsured.
But with polls showing many Americans skeptical about his plan, Obama is trying to change the terms of the debate to how an overhaul would help the middle class or, as he put it, What's in it for me?
If you already have health insurance, the reform we're proposing will give you more security. It will keep the government out of your healthcare decisions, giving you the option to keep your coverage if you're happy with it, Obama said in a speech in Ohio.
Anne Kim, economic program director at the Third Way organization think tank, said Obama's shift in rhetoric is significant because it will educate Americans on the benefits of change -- for example, people would not be denied insurance coverage because of a pre-existing health condition.
A big part of it has been that in the minds of many Americans, healthcare reform is nothing more than covering the uninsured, she said. It's much more than that.
(Editing by Patricia Zengerle)