WASHINGTON - President Obama, in an interview yesterday, rejected criticism that he has compromised too much in order to secure health-care legislation, challenging his critics to identify any "gap" between what he campaigned on last year and what Congress is on the verge of passing.
"Nowhere has there been a bigger gap between the perceptions of compromise and the realities of compromise than in the health-care bill," Obama said about his legislative record. "Every single criteria for reform I put forward is in this bill."
As the Senate prepares to pass its version of a health-care overhaul, Obama has come under sharp criticism for the size and shape of the legislation, including most recently from the left wing of his own party.
Former Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean, for one, has said he would prefer that the Democrat-controlled Senate defeat the bill rather than have what he considers to be weak legislation pass into law.
In the interview, Obama vigorously defended the legislation and the priorities he set out in shaping it, saying he is "not just grudgingly supporting the bill. I am very enthusiastic about what we have achieved."
He said the Senate bill accomplishes "95 percent" of what he called for during his 2008 campaign and in his September speech to a joint session of Congress on the need for overhauling health care.
In listing those priorities, Obama cited the 30 million uninsured Americans projected to receive coverage, budget estimates of more than $1 trillion in savings over the next two decades, a "patients' bill of rights on steroids" to protect consumers from being dropped by insurance companies, and tax breaks to help small businesses pay to cover employees.
Those elements are in the House and Senate versions of health-care legislation, whose competing elements will have to be reconciled in conference committee early next year. The House bill includes a public option, the government-run plan favored by Dean and other progressive Democrats, but the Senate version leaves it out.
Obama said the public option "has become a source of ideological contention between the left and right." But, he added, "I didn't campaign on the public option."
"Do these pieces of legislation have exactly everything I want? Of course not," he said. "But they have the things that are necessary to reduce costs for businesses, families and the government."
On taking office in the midst of a severe financial crisis, Obama, a former senator whose senior staff includes many Capitol Hill veterans, settled on a legislative strategy that departed from those of his predecessors.
He decided that, rather than pursue big pieces of legislation one at a time, his administration would seek a health-care overhaul, a cap-and-trade bill, financial reform legislation, and other measures simultaneously.
"What I thought was very important not to do was further delay work on some of the big-ticket items that I had been elected to achieve and that were critical for our long-term economic growth," he said.
Obama said he "could have put off" health care, adding that "there are some people who would say that wouldn't be such a bad thing - the opponents of reform."
But he said delaying on that issue, which has been tied to the country's future fiscal and financial health, would have continued the "double-digit" rise in health-care costs and increased the burden on businesses paying for employee coverage.
"Given how difficult fighting the special interest has been on Capitol Hill," he said, "it's clear that, if we hadn't decided to make a bold step forward this year, we probably wouldn't have had the political capital to get it done in the future."