WASHINGTON — Six months in office, President Barack Obama sought Wednesday night to rally support for sweeping health care legislation he's struggling to push through Congress, expressing support for a surtax on families making more than $1 million a year to help pay for it.
Under pressure from Democrats to weigh in personally on the details of legislation, Obama also vowed at a prime-time news conference to reject any measure "primarily funded through taxing middle-class families."
While the session was dominated by health care, Obama said in response to one question that Cambridge, Mass., police "acted stupidly" last week in arresting Henry Louis Gates Jr., a black scholar at Harvard, in his house. Police were called to the house to investigate a possible break-in. Gates produced identification but was arrested on a charge of disorderly conduct after protesting the police conduct.
"Now I don't know, not having been there, what role race played in that," the president said. But he added that blacks and Latinos often are stopped by authorities in disproportionate numbers. Police have dropped charges initially lodged against Gates.
Obama stepped to the microphone looking grayer than the man who ran for president and took office in January and immediately began confronting the worst economic recession in decades.
Defends midsummer deadline
He defended his decision to set a midsummer deadline for the House and Senate to act on health care, even if it isn't met. "I'm rushed because I get letters every day from families that are being clobbered by health care costs, and they ask me can you help," he said.
If the consequences are high for nearly 50 million Americans who lack insurance, the political impact is huge for Obama, who is putting much of his credibility on the line to gain congressional passage. His stepped-up public role comes as he faces rising criticism from Republicans, sliding public approval ratings and divisions within his party. Obama acknowledged that many people are uneasy about growing federal budget deficits and the fast-rising government debt.
He said that without a deadline for action, a recent proposal to curtail the growth in Medicare costs would not have materialized "until who knows when." He said in the past few days, leaders in both houses had agreed to incorporate it into legislation taking shape.
Asked if it was his job to produce a deal on legislation, the president said: "Absolutely it's my job. I'm the president. And I think this has to get done."
He said that since he moved into the White House, "we have been able to pull our economy back from the brink."
Yet, he said, "of course we still have a long way to go." Obama didn't say so, but unemployment, currently 9.5 percent, is expected to remain stubbornly high for many months to come.
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He was eager to talk about health care — an issue that now towers above all others — and has led at least one Republican to say that it could prove to be the president's Waterloo if the drive collapses.
"This isn't about me. I have great health insurance and so does every member of Congress," he said.
Key to rebuilding economy
The president said that in addition to helping millions who lack coverage, the health care legislation is central to the goal of eventually rebuilding the economy stronger than it was before the recession that began more than a year ago.
He said Medicare and Medicaid, government health care programs for the elderly and the poor, are the "biggest driving force behind our federal deficit."
Unless they are tamed, he said to a national TV audience, "we will not be able to control our deficit. If we do not reform health care, your premiums and out-of-pocket costs will continue to skyrocket."
The president said he believed it was possible to fund more than two-thirds of the cost of health care legislation by eliminating waste and redirecting federal funds already being spent. The rest must come from higher taxes, he said.
The administration proposed last winter a plan to raise taxes on upper-income wage earners by limiting their ability to claim deductions.
Congress looked unfavorably on the proposal, and Obama said he was open to alternatives — with one notable exception.
"If I see a proposal primarily funded through taxing middle-class families, I'm going to be opposed to it," he said.
It was not immediately clear whether the president was signaling he would accept at least some higher taxes on middle-class families as the price for winning passage.
As a candidate he vowed repeatedly that no one earning under $250,000 would face higher taxes if he won the White House.
Obama's remarks about a proposed tax on million-dollar families aligned him with Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Draft legislation in the House calls for the surtax on individuals making $280,000 and families with $350,000 income or more, but she suggested earlier in the week those levels should be increased.
The president stepped to the microphone as Congress labored over his call for legislation to expand health care to millions who lack it, as well as control the costs of medical care generally.
In his opening statement, he stressed the second of those two goals.
"In the past eight year, we saw the enactment of two tax cuts, primarily for the wealthiest Americans, and a Medicare prescription program, none of which were paid for."
Bill won't add to deficit
He vowed anew that he wouldn't sign health care legislation that wasn't paid for, although his administration has exempted from that pledge an estimated $245 billion to raise Medicare fees for doctors.
"This debate is not a game for these Americans, and they cannot afford to wait for reform any longer," Obama said. "They are looking to us for leadership. And we must not let them down."
The president said he was pleased banks are returning to profitability. But he added, "What we haven't seen I think is the kind of change in behavior and practices on Wall Street that would ensure that we don't find ourselves in the fix where we've got to bail out these folks again." He said legislation he has proposed to Congress includes new regulations to control executive compensation and limit excessive risk taking.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.