Talk-show host Michael Smerconish of WPHT-AM (1210) conducted what was billed as President Barack Obama's first live radio interview from the White House today. The president used the occasion for damage control and myth-busting.

As promised, both Smerconish and callers were respectful, even when, as with Susan from New York, the caller was unhappy with the proposed reforms. That came in sharp contrast to the strident clashes at town hall meetings across the country over the past two weeks.

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Smerconish opened by asking about Secretary of Health Kathleen Sebelius and her remark on CNN April 16 that the "public option" - a choice of a government-mediated health care plan for those who cannot afford a plan or do not like the one they have - is "not the essential element" in the Obama reform plan. Her remarks had been widely interpreted to mean that Obama was willing to sacrifice that controversial provision.

Obama insisted Sebelius had not misspoken, and asserted that "the press got a little excited and some folks on the left got excited" and had misinterpreted both her meaning and Obama's intentions. He insisted his position has not changed, that he supported a public option, but also that this option was only one part of a larger group of choices. Obama added that he and Sebelius agreed that "all these other insurance reforms are just as important as the public option."

He deflected fears he is seeking a larger government taekover of the private sector, pointing out that bailouts of banks and automakers had begun under the Bush administration. Such intervention, said the president, "wasn't ideological; this was a matter of necessity." He also said that while "I would love the private marketplace to be handling this without any government intervention," the problem is that "it's not working."

Ernie from Boston thought it would be a good idea if the federal employees' health care plan were open to all, and if the federal workers could also have access to the public option. Obama agreed.

Tracy from Indianapolis challenged Obama for bullet points on what he sought from a health-care bill. Obama first rejected the notion that his health-care plan would be open to illegal immigrants. They would always continue to get emergency room care for reasons of compassion and public safety.

His bullet points were: (1) the plan must be "deficit-neutral," that is, be paid for by savings or revenues elsewhere in the budget and not add to the federal debt; (2) it must slow the runaway inflation of health-care costs; (3) it must contain private insurance reforms for people who have their own health care; and (4) it must offer a range of choices for individuals and small businesses that cannot afford or do not like the available programs.

Joe from Philadelphia worried that "the knees are buckling" at the White House, that Obama is about to give in to pressure to drop controversial aspects of reform, including, again, the private option. Obama denied his knees were getting weak. "Passing a bill like this is always messy," he said, drawing parallels with Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, all of whom were accused of socialism when they passed big social programs.

Obama said he was "confident we're going to get it done," and, while he acknowledged that some congressional Republicans appeared to be "taking a page" out of the playbook of 1994, when Bill Clinton's health-care plans were defeated, he said he felt a few Senate Republicans, such as Charles Grassley of Iowa and Olympia Snowe of Maine, were sincerely cooperating.

Then came two off-course questions, one about the Lockerbie bomber's release to Libya (which Obama called "inappropriate") and one on a Smerconish idee fixe, finding Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri of al-Qaeda. Obama referenced the recent killing of Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in Pakistan as evidence of progress.

Then a final health-care sprint. Of all the questioners, Susan of New York was perhaps the closest to tendentious, but she remained controlled as she suggested that a local, state-based solution would be preferable to a grand countrywide approach.

Obama replied that his proposals were largely state-based, including the use of stimulus funds to expand Medicaid. "Keep in mind," he told Susan, "that nobody is talking about the government administering all of health care." And he contended that "the track record for government administering health care actually is surprisingly good," pointing to Medicare's administrative costs, which generally are lower than those of private insurers because signups are more or less automatic.

He finished by discussing ways to keep young, just-in-the-market workers on their parents' health plans longer, until those young workers can find full-time jobs and coverage.

Scheduled for 20 minutes, the interview went 26.

Smerconish found out last week he'd gotten the interview. Speaking afterward in a phone interview, Smerconish said he guessed that after a very contentious two weeks, with town-hall demonstrations, Democrats in disagreement, and much bad press, the administration "wanted to reach out to the talk-radio community, which, let's face it, isn't hospitable territory."

Smerconish said that in the 24 hours before the interview, "more than 5,000-plus e-mails came in to me suggesting questions. Truly 95 percent of them were substantive, and by and large they skipped name-calling and fingerpointing. I like to think there's a yearning for real dialogue."

He also added that although he'd interviewed Obama several times, today was "the first time I'd ever really met the man. It's pretty surreal to be sitting in front of the fireplace where FDR did fireside chats and have the current president come ambling down the hall and extend a hand."

Immediately following the Smerconish-Obama interview, WPHT-AM returned to the Rush Limbaugh program, which had been interrupted for the interview. Limbaugh said he hadn't listened to the interview, but he did know that "at one point the president lied again when he said that you get to keep your insurance. . . . it's just not true."

Very obviously, the media debate continues.

Contact staff writer John Timpane at 215-854-4406,, or