WASHINGTON — In his strongest words yet against Iran, President Barack Obama on Tuesday condemned the country's violent suppression of its people and lauded Iranians who've braved brutality to protest what they believe was a rigged election.
The president opened a midday news conference by saying that the United States and the world "have been appalled and outraged by the threats, beatings and imprisonments of the last few days." Two topics dominated the session: Iran and Democrats' efforts to overhaul the nation's health care system.
"I strongly condemn these unjust actions, and I join with the American people in mourning each and every innocent life that is lost," Obama said of Iran.
He added that the regime's handling of the situation was "not encouraging" for prospects of renewing diplomacy with the United States, but said that Iran still would have a path to negotiations if its leaders wanted one. He said he still considered finding a way to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon the United States' "core national security" interest in the country.
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The Democratic president's remarks came after days of Republican pressure to step up his criticism of Iran. Obama rejected the notion that he was responding to that pressure, saying he's been "very consistent" in his remarks since Iran's disputed June 12 election and emphasizing that "we don't know yet how this thing is going to play out. I know everybody here is on a 24-hour news cycle. I'm not. OK?"
On health care, the president seemed to leave open the possibility that he might support an overhaul without including a new public insurance alternative. He wouldn't answer directly when he was asked whether a public option was non-negotiable.
"We have not drawn lines in the sand, other than that reform has to control costs and that it has to provide relief to people who don't have health insurance or are under-insured. . . . Right now, I will say that our position is that a public plan makes sense."
He said that "there can be some legitimate concerns on the part of private insurers that if any public plan is simply being subsidized by taxpayers endlessly, that over time they can't compete with the government just printing money."
At the same time, Obama questioned insurance companies' premise that a public option would eliminate private insurance.
"If private insurers say that the marketplace provides the best-quality health care, if they tell us that they're offering a good deal, then why is it that the government, which they say can't run anything, suddenly is going to drive them out of business? That's not logical."
The president also added a major caveat to his oft-repeated promise that people who like their doctors and private insurance plans could keep them under his proposal to create a public program to compete with the private sector.
If employers chose to drop their private plans, he conceded, people's options would change.
"What I'm saying is the government is not going to make you change plans under health reform." He suggested that many employers would scale back their coverage if Congress didn't act.
He also said that any health care overhaul — estimated to cost $1 trillion or more over a decade — would be paid for and wouldn't add to the federal budget deficit.
On the economy more broadly, the president said it wasn't yet time for a second stimulus package on top of the first $787 billion one: "I think it's important to see how the economy evolves and how effective the first stimulus is."
On a personal note, Obama acknowledged the day after signing anti-smoking legislation that he still smokes cigarettes occasionally.
He called himself "95 percent cured" and said that he didn't smoke daily and never smoked in front of his family, but that he still constantly struggled with the desire to smoke.
He compared his addiction to "folks who go to AA. You know, once you've gone down this path, then, you know, it's something you continually struggle with, which is precisely why the legislation we signed was so important, because what we don't want is kids going down that path in the first place."
However, it was Iran that evoked the most emotion from the president.
"In 2009, no iron fist is strong enough to shut off the world from bearing witness to peaceful protests," he said, and "those who stand up for justice are always on the right side of history."
He termed accusations that the U.S. had meddled in the elections "patently false and absurd."
"They are an obvious attempt to distract people from what is truly taking place within Iran's borders. This tired strategy of using old tensions to scapegoat other countries won't work anymore in Iran. This is not about the United States and the West; this is about the people of Iran, and the future that they, and only they, will choose.
"I have made it clear that the United States respects the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and is not at all interfering in Iran's affairs," he said. "But we must also bear witness to the courage and dignity of the Iranian people, and to a remarkable opening within Iranian society. And we deplore violence against innocent civilians anywhere that it takes place."
He praised the "timeless dignity" of Iranians who've marched, and singled out "courageous women" who've stood up to brutality and threats.
He also noted the role of technology such as Twitter, cell phones and computers in helping to get the story out to the world after many independent journalists were expelled from Iran.
It was Obama's fourth solo news conference at the White House, and the first that wasn't in prime time. Originally scheduled for the Rose Garden, it was moved into the White House briefing room, apparently out of deference to Tuesday's bright sunlight and heat.
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