By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 30, 2009
BRISTOL, Va., July 29 -- Pacing a small stage between the deli and pastry counters, President Obama decided that, on a day when he wanted to bring an everyday edge to his health-care reform plans, he had to come clean about his own extraordinary situation.
"I have a doctor that follows me everywhere I go -- seriously," he said to laughter from the 100 or so employees of the Kroger supermarket gathered here. "And an ambulance that follows me everywhere."
The populist humor typified a day of swing-state travel for Obama, who, beyond the Beltway and the inch-by-inch debate in Washington over health-care reform, shrugged off his cool reserve and campaigned vigorously for the centerpiece of his domestic agenda.
In a packed high school gymnasium in North Carolina and then here along the Virginia-Tennessee line, Obama employed a sometimes-partisan defense of his economic stewardship and a sometimes-personal advocacy of his plan to extend insurance to the roughly 46 million Americans who do not have it.
As reform legislation began moving his way in Congress, Obama focused on the potential consumer benefits of revamping the system. Recent opinion polls have shown waning support for the idea.
At turns, he invoked the image of his mother arguing with insurance companies as she died of cancer. He guaranteed consumer protections that would prevent the loss of insurance coverage -- something his mother faced -- in any measure that emerges from Congress.
And he warned that future pay increases for the U.S. workforce might be tied to the fate of his efforts.
"I don't want to lose sight of the personal element of this," Obama told a woman here who asserted that health care is a human right.
"We're the wealthiest country on Earth, and for us to be the only developed nation where people cannot count on health care is shameful."
While his reception was largely warm, Obama encountered questions in each city that revealed deep-seated fears about his plans and whether they would reduce costs.
In Raleigh -- he won North Carolina by less than a percentage point last year -- and later here, audience members said they worried about the high cost of prescription drugs.
Others wondered how Obama would encourage more medical students to become primary-care doctors, which he said his reform plans would rely on for the kind of preventive medicine that heads off more serious and costly diseases.
Small-business owners and employees asked how his ideas would cut costs to allow more revenue for employee benefits and raises.
Outside the friendly venues, demonstrators raised signs bearing the Soviet-style hammer and sickle to express concerns about potential government encroachment.
The criticism of the government's potentially larger role complicated Obama's message.
In Raleigh, he began the town-hall forum as he does nearly all of them. To laughter and applause, he told an exuberant audience of about 2,200 how good it feels "to get out of Washington every once in a while."
But in Raleigh and in Bristol, a city he last visited in June 2008 as part of the day-long start of his general-election campaign, he asked the audience to reconsider any belief that the government is incompetent.
"This is not something that is impossible to do, but we've got to overcome the understandable skepticism that somehow Washington can never get anything right," he said in Raleigh.
The answer came in response to a question from Patty Briguglio, who owns a public relations firm and provides health-care benefits to her 20 employees. She asked Obama for evidence of why a new government-run health-care system would be better than the current one. Obama cited Medicare and the Department of Veterans Affairs system, which function differently but, he said, have high satisfaction rates.
Here, Obama addressed a smaller and more frightened audience.
Protesters lined a nearby intersection, and Obama explained their opposition as the result of "misinformation." After several questions, an elderly woman rose to say she worries that "the new system" would force a change in doctors and that "older citizens will just be put out to pasture."
"Say it isn't so," she asked.
Without pause, Obama answered: "It isn't so."