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I went down to St. Louis’ Barnes-Jewish Hospital today to see a press conference with Barack Obama. He made the rounds with a young nurse early this morning as part of a commitment to spend time on the campaign trail with Americans all over the country as they go about their daily routine, and afterwards held a brief press conference where he contrasted his health care plan with John McCain’s.

I got there early in order to see if I could find out where the hospital was receiving media, because I wasn’t officially on the media list yet. I found the media entrance easily enough, but had to wait for the OK from the Obama campaign before I could go on to the room set aside for the press conference. Being held back for a bit was my first stroke of luck for the morning, because while the media waited outside to be wanded and their bags to be searched, I got to stand just inside the door in the AC watching and listening to patients and their families craning their heads for a glimpse of Barack, and the hospital staff assembled giddily discussing when and where each of them had seen Barack before: Forest Park Rally 2006, Union Station or the Moolah Theater 2007, Edward Jones Dome 2008. I also got to see David Axelrod walking in, hair disheveled as usual.

A very dedicated Obama staffer accompanied me on the elevator up, a member of the advance staff since last October. That was the last time she slept in the same place more than two nights in a row, but she was still sharp, even after waking up at 3:15am today. My hat’s off to her for calmly accommodating me even while managing a whole host of other issues.

Enough about the sideshow – let’s get to the main event. Barack Obama strode in to the media availability room preceded by Kate Mazsluf, the nurse who Obama followed making the rounds. She introduced him by calling him her “new co-worker”, and said that even though he was a senator running for president, he wasn’t half bad at providing care, either. She finished her remarks by emphasizing that she and her coworkers at the hospital shared his goal of providing quality affordable health care to all Americans.

Barack Obama took over the podium by thanking the hospital staff and administration and specifically his nurse partner this morning for allowing him to visit and managing it so smoothly. calling Kate a very good supervisor for him. After the soft intro, he quickly turned to McCain and very effectively.

He called out John McCain on his misleading speech to the National Federation of Small Businesses today, contrasting his own approach down the line with John McCain’s. Far from raising taxes, Obama would cut taxes for 95% of all Americans while McCain would create $300 billion in new tax loopholes and breaks for the wealthiest. “Calling McCain a third term of George Bush is in this regard unfair to George Bush. McCain wants to take it to a whole new level.” What’s more, McCain said that he will eliminate earmarks to pay for his tax cuts, when earmarks by a generous definition account for $18 billion in spending. Obama has a plan to shore up Social Security without cutting benefits or raising taxes on the middle class, while McCain wants to privatize it. He excoriated McCain and Bush on their opposition to raising the minimum wage. And finally, Obama turned to the reason for his visit, affordable health care.

He explained that the critical feature of McCain’s health care plan was rejected by the group McCain addressed today; a survey of small business owners revealed that 70% oppose repealing the tax break they get for offering health care plans to their employees. Obama also explained that while McCain claims to want more choice in health care, the truth is the opposite. When your employer drops your health care coverage and you can’t afford to pick it up yourself, even with the flimsy tax credit McCain claims will offset the added cost, you have less choice, not more. Obama will create a low-cost pool for small businesses that will add to consumer options, not decrease them, and provide funds for an electronic record-keeping system and more preventative care, which in total would lower family premiums by $2500 a year and stop the spiraling increases in health care costs.

Obama closed his introductory remarks strong:

It’s time to stop saying you are on your own to the insured Americans, to struggling families, and small businesses, and it’s time to reclaim the idea that Kate, the nurses and doctors and staff here at Barnes Jewish Hospital live out each and every day, that we all have mutual obligations to one another. That’s why I’m running for president.

A summary of the Q & A session is below the fold.

For the most part, the Q & A session was boilerplate, a bunch of questions about taxes, the Clinton campaign, and the war in Iraq that have been covered to death. The first question was a good one about mandates, an issue that’s been overcovered yet still poorly explained. Did he oppose mandates philosophically or was the lack of a mandate in his plan a political maneuver to entice Republicans to sign on to his plan?

Obama answered that his health care plan is built around the observation that Americans don’t lack access to quality health care because we don’t want it, it’s because it’s too expensive. Bringing costs down is the first priority. He acknowledged that there may be some “malingerers” who do not want to buy into the system because they are healthy and think they are invincible, but many of these were young people who would be covered until the age of 25 by their parents, according to his plan. If there were a sizable majority of others who weren’t covered and caused a systemic problem, he would seek to address them as needed.

A shining moment was when someone from the Wall Street Journal tried to cast him as unfair to McCain, saying that while McCain’s spending plans don’t add up, “neither do yours.” Obama wasn’t having it. “That’s not true”, he said. “In fact, I could send you the article from your own paper that proves it.” (You could hear a few oooh’s in the press room at that.) Obama admitted that he didn’t have an itemized budget accounting for every last dime, but reasonable projections putting him in the ballpark did not compare to McCain, who came up “$282 billion dollars off.”

He also answered a couple of good questions on gun violence and food prices. Asked to comment on increasing gun-related murders around the country, Obama proposed two measures. He would restore federal funding to cops programs to put more police back on the beat and in neighborhoods. This would help urban as well as rural districts. Also, while affirming his belief in the Second Amendment, he also expressed the need to trace guns involved in crimes, and that blocking such traces was a mistake.

And on rising global food prices, he said there were a lot of interrelated issues. Rising global temperatures contributed to changing weather patterns and decreased production. For instance, every degree the average global temperature rises, rice production falls ten percent. That’s why he has a cap-and-trade plan to lower carbon emissions and curb global warming. And the US could do more to encourage production and stockpile food globally. Finally, high energy prices are exacerbating the rising cost of food, and research into alternative fuels can help bring prices back down.

There’s one point where Obama will need to be quicker. Jim Johnson, the guy who is in charge of vetting vice-presidential candidates for Obama, apparently has ties to Countrywide, the big mortgaging company in trouble over subprime loans. This was brought up, and Obama fumbled around a bit before finally answering that this guy is not a part of his campaign; he’s a guy doing a very specific temporary job unrelated to policy, and he won’t be part of an Obama administration. Fair enough, but he needs to get that out quicker.

The food prices question was su
pposed to be the last (a staffer yelled out “Last question!” before he took it) but he went on to answer two more, and I’m glad he did. The first was if he had a chance to reflect on the campaign and where he’s at now, and Obama admitted that he did. He said that he’s proud of his staff, and he feels “humbled and grateful to the American people for giving him this opportunity” and “humbled because we have a big job ahead of us.”

The final question was another tax gotcha question – did Obama say that he would defer tax increases on the wealthy if we were in a recession?

Obama said that was inaccurate, that what he really said was that he will always take facts into account (how refreshing!), and that if adjustments need to be made 6 months from now when he takes office, he would make them if necessary. (It’s sad that claims to adjust policies based on facts is in any way newsworthy.) And then he launched into a critique of Republican economic policy, pointing out the extreme inequalities that have arisen during Republican rule. He drew a picture of profits from rising productivity going almost exclusively to the top 1% and even more skewed to the top 0.1%, while the real median wage has remained stagnant and energy, health care and college tuition have skyrocketed. His policies are intended to reverse that trend.

My final stroke of luck this morning happened on the way out. It took me a little while to break through the gaggle of reporters and hospital staff to get to the elevator, but when I did, I ended up on the elevator with Obama’s nurse partner. She was very sweet and a bit shy, even as she realized her celebrity. Someone  asked her how she felt when she was picked to do this, and she said she thought it was a joke. She said he was a good sport and did extremely well for someone who had no practical training, and he really showed he cared. I asked her if she was nervous, and she replied, “No! Barack is not intimidating at all. I was only really intimidated by all the media.”

The elevator door opened. I bid adieu and walked home.