WASHINGTON — Using better-than-expected jobs numbers to press his top domestic priority, President Barack Obama is arguing that overhauling the health care system is essential to the country's economic well-being.
Republicans countered that the high unemployment rate — 9.4 percent in July — shows how families and businesses are struggling and that Obama's reliance on a large government role in expanding health coverage is the wrong approach.
A net total of 247,000 jobs were lost last month, the fewest in a year and a drastic improvement from the 443,000 that vanished in June as the U.S. tries to pull out from the worst recession since World War II.
"We've begun to put the brakes on this recession and ... the worst may be behind us," Obama said in his weekly radio and Internet address Saturday. He cited Friday's Labor Department report that showed a dip in unemployment, but said, "We must do more than rescue our economy from this immediate crisis. We must rebuild it stronger than before."
He added: "We must lay a new foundation for future growth and prosperity, and a key pillar of a new foundation is health insurance reform."
It's a pitch that comes as the Democratic-controlled Congress struggles to write a health care plan that meets Obama's goals of expanding coverage to millions of uninsured while reining in exploding costs.
"So far they have produced a measure that they cannot sell even to their own members," Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell said in a jab at majority Democrats. "The only thing bipartisan, so far, is the opposition."
With lawmakers embarking on a monthlong summer break, opponents and supporters of various proposals under consideration are waging fierce campaigns. Obama is redoubling his effort to explain his positions to a public that polls say is becoming increasingly wary he can deliver on his promise to revamp health care.
The president argued that Congress was close to finalizing "real health insurance reform" but, as he has for weeks now, he warned against listening to opponents who he said were spewing misleading information and outlandish claims to defeat "the best chance of reform we have ever had."
Obama was getting a boost from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who as first lady led the failed effort in the 1990s to overhaul health care.
In an interview with CNN set to air Sunday, Clinton called Congress' latest work on the issue "a very healthy process," though she acknowledge serious differences in viewpoints that must be bridged.
Even so, she said: "I actually agree that at the end of the day, with all of this negotiation and back and forth, you know, we're going to come up with something" and "my hope is that it's going to be meaningful enough to make a difference ... on the cost side."
Countering the Democratic position, Bob McDonnell, the Republican nominee for Virginia governor, argued that the new Labor Department report was "yet another reminder that families and small businesses are struggling as unemployment remains high."
In the GOP's response address, McDonnell sought to draw distinctions between Republicans and Democrats on economic and health care policy.
"As Republicans, we believe you create jobs by keeping taxes and regulation low, and litigation at a minimum. Americans succeed when government puts in place positive policies that encourage more freedom, and more opportunity," he said.
McDonnell also said that, unlike Democrats, Republicans are committed to helping the uninsured — "not through nationalizing the system with a costly government-run plan, but rather by supporting free-market incentives and helping small-business owners make coverage more accessible and affordable, and ensuring that Americans can keep their individual private policies."
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