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Obama: Staff Had No Idea Of Ill. Scandal

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. First this hour, President-elect Barack Obama wanted to talk health care, but also had to talk Blagojevich. Among many allegations, Governor Rod Blagojevich is accused of trying to sell Mr. Obama's Senate seat. The president-elect held a news conference today to announce his choice to lead health care reform efforts, former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. But the questions about Blagojevich were unavoidable, as NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY: President-elect Barack Obama said earlier this week, he's had no personal contact with Governor Blagojevich about who should fill his Senate seat. But that left questions about whether anyone on his staff had done so. A government account of wiretaps released this week shows the governor hoped to receive a Cabinet post, ambassadorship, or some other kind of payback in exchange for appointing a Senate candidate favored by Mr. Obama. The president-elect insists no one on his staff played along.

President-elect BARACK OBAMA: Our office had no involvement in any deal making around my Senate seat - that, I'm absolutely certain of. And that is - that would be a violation of everything that this campaign has been about. And that's not how we do business.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama noted that the governor's own statement in the wiretap suggests he was frustrated that the Obama team was offering him nothing more than appreciation. Mr. Obama did not quote from the profanity-laced statement itself, joking that his news conference was a family program. He also promised to provide a full account of contacts between his staff and the governor's office within the next few days.

The president-elect also weighed in more forcefully than he has in the past to support short-term relief for the auto industry. The $14 billion loan package passed by the House last night still faces strong opposition in the Senate. Mr. Obama said he shares the frustration of many Americans with the mistakes the auto industry has made. But he warned letting that industry collapse would have devastating ripple effects.

President-elect OBAMA: I believe our government should provide short-term assistance to the auto industry to avoid a collapse while holding the companies accountable and protecting taxpayer interests. The legislation in Congress right now is an important step in that direction. And I'm hopeful that a final agreement can be reached this week.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama also noted more discouraging economic news. Unemployment claims are at a 26-year high. Then he turned to what was supposed to be the subject of today's news conference, his plans for health care reform.

President-elect OBAMA: Now, some may ask how at this moment of economic challenge we can afford to invest in reforming our health care system. And I ask a different question. I ask, how can we afford not to?

HORSLEY: Some of Mr. Obama's health care plans are designed to cut costs by simplifying record keeping, for example, or stressing preventative health care. But his effort to expand health care access to people who don't have it now would cost more money. And his original plan to pay for those costs by raising taxes on wealthy Americans may be postponed because of the economic downturn. Even if it does cost money, the man tapped to lead the president's health care reform effort, former Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota, insists mending the broken system will pay off in more ways than one.

Mr. TOM DASCHLE (United States Secretary of Health and Human Services-Nominee): Addressing our health care challenges will not only mean healthier and longer lives, it will also make American companies more competitive, address the cause of half of all of our personal bankruptcies, and help pull our economy out of its current tailspin.

HORSLEY: Daschle will serve as both health and human services secretary and director of a new White House Office of Health Reform. That makes Daschle the lead architect of any reform plan. Both he and the president-elect say their plan will be crafted in the open with input from doctors, patients, employers, workers, and the general public. The transition team is already planning to hold thousands of health care meetings in households around the country over the next few weeks. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.