The healthcare summit begins

The much-hyped healthcare summit had the air of a Group of Eight leaders’ meeting when it got underway on Thursday morning, complete with chandeliers and an army of aides. President Barack Obama walked into the picturesque Garden Room at Blair House, across from the White House, just after 10am.

Laying the foundation for bipartisanship, he walked around the all-important hollow square table and shook hands and back-slapped all the delegates, Republican and Democrat alike. As he sat down, the president cited the “glimpse of bipartisanship” evident when the Senate passed a jobs bill earlier this week.

In his opening remarks, Mr Obama tried to appeal to lawmakers’ desire to help ordinary Americans to unite them around a common cause. “Some of you know that I get 10 letters out of the 40,000 I receive every day for me to take upstairs to the residence and read every single night… I can tell you that at least two, sometimes five, of the 10 letters, relates to the challenges that people are facing in healthcare everyday.”

He also urged lawmakers to remember that not every American is as lucky as them, recalling personal encounters with the healthcare system.

“I now have about as good healthcare as anyone could have. I’ve got a doctor right downstairs… All of you in the House and Senate have good healthcare,” the president said, recalling when, in Chicago, he and Michelle Obama rushed their daughter Malia to the emergency room because she had asthma, and when their other daughter, Sasha, had a spinal tap when she had meningitis.

“Everybody here has those same stories somewhere in their lives,” he said, adding that everyone in the room was “profoundly sympathetic” to the plight of Americans facing medical and insurance problems.

He quoted Republican senators John McCain and Mike Enzi’s previous statements on the need to improve the healthcare system, and saying he had read the GOP’s proposals for healthcare reform.

“When I look at the ideas that are out there, there is overlap. It’s not perfect overlap, it’s not 100 per cent overlap, but there’s overlap,” he said.

“I don’t know that the gaps can be bridged… but I’d like to make sure that this discussion is actually a discussion and not just us trading talking points. I hope that this is not political theatre where we’re just playing to the cameras,” he said, saying that the American people were looking for progress.

Although expectations for the summit are not high, the stakes are. Not only healthcare, but the tenor of the rest of Mr Obama’s presidency, is resting on it.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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