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Obama praises Truman for putting principle over polls, says he'll do that with health care

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 10, 2010 - President Barack Obama reprised his St. Charles speech -- with some key changes -- Tuesday night when he addressed two more supportive crowds at a fund-raising reception and dinner held at the Renaissance Grand Hotel downtown. 

He defended his continued push for health-care reform, despite the polls, saying he was committed to standing on principle.

"We don't shirk from a challenge, we don't shrink from responsibilities; we embrace them -- for our children and the next generation. We don't worry about the next election; we worry about a longer term." 

Several in the reception audience were pleased to see what they viewed as a feistier Obama than they've heard or seen on TV in recent weeks. "I want Barack Obama to put the gloves on and start punching," said Bernard Stein of Clayton.

Aside from agreeing with Obama on health care, Stein added, "We need to support rational intelligent politicians. Not angry, uniformed screamers."

Stein was apparently referring, in part, to some of the protesters outside the hotel, who were shouting "Kill the Bill" -- and some stronger slogans -- as attendees to the dinner or reception waited in line to go through security.

A White House official said 470 people attended the dinner in the hotel's upstairs ballroom, where attendees paid up to $50,000 apiece, and 800 were at the "Grassroots Reception" in a downstairs hall. Tickets for the latter ranged from $500 for seats to $25 for standing room at the back. U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said the lower-cost reception was her idea, so that regular Obama supporters -- some of whom had been local campaign volunteers -- could see and hear him as well.

The money raised at both events Tuesday night was to be split between McCaskill and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which is expected to use a hefty chunk of its take to aid the U.S. Senate bid of Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan.

Although Carnahan was in Washington for official business (and a fundraiser of her own), her mother attended the dinner and got a special shout-out from the president. 

Obama was joined at both events by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, a fellow Democrat who told the crowds that a Carnahan victory would give Missouri two Democrats in the U.S. Senate for the first time since 1976 (when Missouri's senators were Democrats Stuart Symington and Thomas F. Eagleton).

But Nixon and Obama made a point of making much of the evening praising McCaskill, who was repeatedly compared to Truman.

"She speaks truth to power," both officials said in separate remarks. Nixon, once a political rival, praised McCaskill for being willing to run for the U.S. Senate at a time -- she announced in 2005 -- when it appeared to be a risky thing to do. She defeated incumbent Republican Jim Talent in 2006.

Obama touched off laughter in his speech when he added that he was at times the "power" who felt the brunt of McCaskill's tongue.

Obama didn't mention that on the health-care bill, for example, McCaskill has yet to take a position on whether she will vote for the reconciliation bill that the Senate is being asked to pass, and which would change some provisions on the current Senate bill -- which she supported -- that the House will not accept.

A McCaskill spokeswoman said the senator wants to wait until she sees what exactly ends up in the reconciliation measure.

But McCaskill made clear Tuesday night that she remained one of Obama's biggest fans. "He is going to be one of the finest presidents in America's history," she said in her introduction.

For his part, Obama emphasized to both supportive crowds at the Renaissance that he hoped to emulate Truman -- or at least take a bit of the straight-talker's advice. He quoted Harry Truman as saying, "Washington is a very easy city to forget where you came from and why you got there in the first place."

"Now there are a lot of nice things in Washington, don't get me wrong," Obama continued. "I love the monuments. But it's a town where most of the time people are worried more about politics than about what's right. People are hooked to the daily polls like some kind of EKG."

In line with Truman, Obama continued, he's tried to stick true to his belief that "you don't govern by the polls. You govern by the principles."

That means, said the president, that one needs to be willing -- like Truman -- to take on difficult issues, in the face of stiff opposition, such as the nation's health care system.

"If I do the right thing," Obama added, "The politics will work itself out."

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.