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Obama Seeks August Rebound

As the August recess approaches, President Barack Obama finds himself increasingly on the defensive, devoting chunks of his appearances to fending off GOP attacks on his health care initiative and other aspects of his agenda.

The debate seems increasingly driven by the GOP and its warnings of health care rationing, the evisceration of Medicare and a piling up of the nation’s debt.

Obama does continue to broadcast his own message. Wednesday, toward the end of his prepared remarks at a “town hall— meeting in Raleigh, N.C., he listed a series of benefits that his plan would provide, like guaranteed coverage of existing conditions.

But many of his arguments seem to be made in the context of a response to the heaps of criticism coming from Republicans

Obama seems to use the word “socialism— and its variants as much as his Republican critics, in his case, of course, to ridicule the assertion by the GOP that his program would lead to socialized medicine.

The president seems exasperated at times that Republicans are so avidly countering his message.

“Nobody is talking about some government takeover of health care,— he pleaded at the event in Raleigh. “I’m tired of hearing that. I have been as clear as I can be.— The president ritually repeats that people will be able to keep their health insurance, a rebuttal to Republicans’ insistence that the government insurance option will squeeze out private coverage.

Obama noted during his Raleigh appearance and at a separate event in Bristol, Va., that he’d seen some opposition along his motorcade route

“I saw the signs,— Obama said in Bristol. “Folks are all riled up.—

Republicans have been pounding away on Obama’s handling of the economy, attacking the president as a profligate spender and linking his economic performance to his plans for health reform.

Last week, in a choreographed procession, Republican House Members trooped to the floor demanding, “Where are the jobs?— and firing away at Obama’s economic record and his health care agenda. They were back reciting the same chant Tuesday.

“Before we move on to the next big government scheme of this administration, the American people are asking, Mr. President, where are the jobs?’— Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) said last week.

White House officials acknowledge that they underestimated the unemployment rate early this year, but they say they and other forecasters were relying on data that turned out to be too optimistic and note that jobs are usually a “lagging indicator— that return only well after a recovery is under way.

Obama spent most of his prepared remarks Wednesday defending his economic record and the stimulus measure that Republicans opposed in near lock step and now say was a nearly $800 billion waste of money.

Seeking to rebut charges that the White House used the measure to embark on new spending schemes, Obama said a third of the stimulus was allotted to tax cuts and another third to emergency measures like extending unemployment insurance.

Obama noted that much of the debt causing Republican hand-wringing was piled up by Republicans themselves, and then he segued into the health debate.

“Because of that debt, a lot of people are saying we can’t go any further in tackling our problems — we definitely can’t do health care — too much debt, too big deficits,— Obama said.

“I do understand people who feel like they’ve had to cut back, so why shouldn’t the government have to cut back — why start a new government program now? So let me just explain why the health of the American people and the American economy demands health insurance reform.—

Afterward, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs sought to downplay the sudden shift to the economy. “I think he just wanted to provide people with an update on where we were,— Gibbs said.

White House officials believe that Obama will be able to dominate the message when Congress disperses in August and say he will maintain a steady pace of health care appearances, even if the opportunity for it will be condensed by some R & R and family time scheduled for Martha’s Vineyard and Camp David.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) on Wednesday seemed palpably relieved that August is coming for the Democrats and the president.

“I think we have a good message to take back home, and I’m glad we’re going to get a chance to do it because there’s a lot of uncertainty out there and a lot of bad information,— Durbin said. “And I’d also say that historically — and I say this as a Member of Congress who’s been an observer — presidents are in the driver’s seat in August. Congress is gone, you know, scattered to the winds with personal and family and constituent service, and the White House is still there generating a message and activity, so I think the president will have a chance to tell the American people about why this process is so important.—

With the House Energy and Commerce Committee still planning to mark up a bill this week and a floor vote on tap once Congress returns, the White House will have its most tangible evidence of progress yet and will try to use it to shift the message momentum.

“The news is a big step forward,— Gibbs said of the House agreement reached Wednesday among conservative Blue Dog Democrats and Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.). “It incorporates … what the president was talking about today in reforming insurance, cutting costs for businesses and families, and providing affordable and accessible insurance to those that don’t have it.—

Emily Pierce contributed to this report.

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