ABC's Diane Sawyer Tosses Tough Queries to Obama; No GOP Voices Featured

ABC's Diane Sawyer on Wednesday hit Barack Obama with some refreshingly tough questions about his plans for health care reform, quizzing the President on potential rationing, reduction of services and whether Americans would really be able to keep their current plan. However, the program also devoted two segments and 13 minutes to Obama, neither of which featured any Republican opposition.

Sawyer, who reported live from the White House and will be co-hosting ABC's June 24 primetime special on health care, focused on a possible reduction of benefits as a result of government-run health care. After an ABC graphic appeared onscreen asserting that eight in ten Americans worry about such a result, Sawyer queried, "They're very concerned that there's going to be a reduction in treatment at some place in all of this. Will [your plan] have the weight of law? Will it have the weight of regulation?"

The GMA host brought up Obama's often-repeated pledge that Americans who like their current health plan will not have to change. However, she observed, "...I thought today [June 23] in the press conference, I heard you amend it to say, if your employer decides to change it, we don't have control over that." Obama justified, "Well, but, of course- that's the case whether we pass health care or not. I can't pass a law that says, 'I'm sorry, employers, you can never make changes to the health care plans you provide your employees.'"

Regarding who would make decisions about treatment people will be able to receive, Sawyer wondered, "Is it time for Americans to recognize they're going to get fewer scans? Fewer procedures? Fewer tests?" She followed up by skeptically asking, "Will there be a board making Solomonic decisions about best practices?"

Sawyer even brought up the President's smoking habit and whether or not he has been able to kick the habit. After being told by Obama that he had was 95 percent free of the smoking addiction, She followed up by fretting, "Is there a time of day that's the hardest?" The President testily retorted, "Diane, I think I've answered that one."

So, while Sawyer should be commended for actually conducting two reasonably tough interviews with Obama, it should be pointed out that the President received, over two segments, 13 minutes and seven seconds of coverage. No conservatives/Republicans or talking head clips of such individuals were featured. And GMA is the same program that devoted 64 minutes to Democratic town hall specials and zero for Republicans.

A transcript of the first segment, which aired at 7am on June 24, follows:

ROBIN ROBERTS: Pivotal day in the debate over health care reform. Today, the President will meet with governors at the White House. And tonight, he'll answer your questions in a town hall. Now, it comes as a new ABC News/Washington Post poll finds 58 percent agree that health care reform is necessary. But 80 percent are concerned it would reduce the quality of health care, limit choice and, Diane, cost too much.

DIANE SAWYER: That's right. And it is a big night. This conversation, tonight, will take place right there, inside the East Room at the White House. And this morning, more than 140 Americans, from all walks of life, and we're talking business people, as well as doctors and patients, are getting up and getting ready for their date with the President. What we hope will be a searching conversation about what really works and does not work in keeping Americans healthy. But as I said, we had a chance to get the conversation started yesterday. The President and I sat there on the south balcony at the White House. He is trying to enlist Americans to put some pressure on, send a message to Congress. Because he says health care is the ticking time bomb inside the American economy. Thank you, Mr. President.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Thank you so much for having me.

DIANE SAWYER: Do you still expect to get health care by the end of the year?


SAWYER: Absolutely?

OBAMA: Absolutely.

SAWYER: If you don't, is it over for four years?

OBAMA: We're going to get eat done. So, I don't engage in hypotheticals in which we don't. And the reason we have to get it done is because the American people understand it has to get done. Every town I visit, every city I go, people ask me, why is it that my premiums have gone up two-times, three-times, in the last nine, ten years. So, whether it's families, businesses or government, we know that we're going to have to reform this system. And I'm confident that, if everybody puts their minds to it, we can get it done.

SAWYER: On cost. And I've been out with my pen and pencil all weekend. Please tell me this is complicated for you, too.

OBAMA: It is very complicated.

SAWYER: The short version? To start covering the estimated $1 trillion cost, or more, the President's proposed $300 billion in cuts. And another $300 billion or so in revenues, taxes, on higher-income people. But senators have already said they're not going to do it.

SAWYER: We've identified $600 billion that will be reallocated from existing health care expenditures by the government. To do that, we've suggested that we should take the deductions that currently wealthy people, like myself, or you, take, drive them back down to 28 percent. If we did that, that affects two to three percent of the population. And we would raise enough money to actually make sure this thing is paid for. Now, members of Congress may have other ideas about how best to do this. I'm happy to listen to them. I still think that's the best way to go about it.

SAWYER: You know about the vast skepticism out there that these numbers are going to add up, that this is going to be sufficient to cover an ever-escalating health care-

OBAMA: I think the- in this debate, the burden should be on those who say we do nothing. Because there's- there tends to be the attitude of, we've got a great system. And if we just don't mess with it and the, you know, Obama folks aren't trying to do too much, that somehow we'll be okay. That's just not the case. Doing nothing means more people losing their coverage, higher costs for families, higher costs for businesses. And Medicare and Medicaid will go bankrupt.

SAWYER: If you don't get the tax -

OBAMA: So, if we don't make these decisions, we'll be worse off.

SAWYER: Are you open for taxing benefits?

OBAMA: I have identified the ways I think we should finance this. I think Congress should adopt them. I'm going to wait and see what ideas, ultimately, they come up with. I suspect when they start saying what the options are, they might end up concluding that actually the options we're presenting are the best ones.

SAWYER: So, you're not going to say one way or the other at this point?

OBAMA: I don't want to prejudge what they're doing.

SAWYER: The President also seemed willing to negotiate on his much-debated government-funded insurance plan and his most-often repeated promise to Americans included a new variable, employers. People have been hearing you say these words about, if you like your doctor, you'll keep your doctor, period. If you like your health plan, you'll keep your health plan, period. Yet, I thought today in the press conference, I heard you amend it to say, if your employer decides to change it, we don't have control over that.

OBAMA: Well, but, of course- that's the case whether we pass health care or not. I can't pass a law that says, "I'm sorry, employers, you can never make changes to the health care plans you provide your employees." What I can say is, that the government is not going to force you to- your employer or you to join a government plan, for example, if you're happy with it and your employer's happy with it. Keep it. If your employer is not providing you the health care that you need, then we're going to give you a set of options to make sure that you continue to have health care.

SAWYER: Is there a point in which you will say, I will wait? I will not accept it at this cost?

OBAMA: Yes. I think that if any reform that we get is not driving down costs in a serious way-

SAWYER: You won't do it?

OBAMA: If people say, we're just going to add more people on to a hugely inefficient system, then I will say no, because we can't afford it. If there aren't some basic game-changers in the system, additional incentives for prevention, encouraging, you know, family care physicians. If we're not, you know, looking at what systems work best and trying to duplicate that. All those things that drive down costs, if those aren't in there, then I'm not for the bill.

SAWYER: And when we talked yesterday, I asked the President about our visits to the doctor. How many scans are we entitled to? How many X-rays? Who's going to make that decision? And that will be in our next half hour. But before we leave now, a footnote to the health care conversation. The pesky press corp is always asking the President about his struggle with smoking. They did it in the press conference yesterday. I tried to follow-up. And as you'll see, got shot down.

OBAMA [From press conference]: Have I fallen off the wagon sometimes? Yes. Am I a daily smoker? A constant smoker? No. I don't do it in front of my kids. I don't do it in front of my family. And, you know, I would say that I am 95 percent cured.

SAWYER: 95 percent huh, you said today? I'm shameless on asking the human interest questions.

OBAMA: Yeah. Well, this is a favorite for every reporter. So, you know, I've answered it as often as I can. I'm sure I will continue to answer.

SAWYER: Is there a time of day that's the hardest?

OBAMA: Diane, I think I've answered that one.

SAWYER: Uh-huh. I guess it's one thing to have your friends and family nagging you. It's another thing to have the entire country nagging you about smoking.

-Scott Whitlock is a news analyst for the Media Research Center.