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Obama Faces 'Scare Tactics' Head-On
"We've definitely made some changes in the last week or so to be more aggressive," one senior adviser said, "as it became clear that this was a debate that was going to play itself out in a campaign-like way."
Tuesday's town hall gathering was the start of what White House officials promise will be a more pointed response to the crescendo of what Obama called "misinformation" coming from critics of his health-care reform efforts.
White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel argued that the contrast between Obama -- whom he described as "reasoned, calm, looking like an adult in the room" -- and some of the more bombastic protesters would also work to the administration's advantage.
"I think the public looks at screaming, swastikas, attacks. . . . It's not a persuasive argument," he said Tuesday. "If anything, it is the opposite."
Aides also took pains to point out that they were not trying to pack the crowd with Obama supporters. Aides said 70 percent of the tickets were given to people who signed up online, and were distributed at random. The rest went to the schools and local lawmakers' offices.
On Friday, Obama is scheduled to hold a town hall meeting in Bozeman, Mont., to discuss the plight of people who have lost their health insurance because of an illness. And at a third session, on Saturday in Grand Junction, Colo., he intends to raise the subject of high out-of-pocket costs, such as copayments and deductibles.
But many of Obama's closest advisers are also cautioning him against panicking about the fate of his top domestic initiative. They said that cable news stations tend to focus on the loudest voices, not necessarily the majority, and stressed that some town hall meetings have been civil discussions.
"The key here is to not overreact to the cable TV catnip of the moment and lose focus on the overall plan for passing comprehensive health insurance reform," White House spokesman Dan Pfeiffer said.
The president's senior aides argue that the seething anger at gatherings nationwide recalls the strident language that erupted at rallies for then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in the waning days of the presidential campaign last year. Internal polling during the race reassured Obama's staff that independent voters were "turned off" by the tone of some of the Republican vice presidential nominee's supporters, an adviser said.
"There's a very legitimate debate to be had about health care on the merits," a senior White House official said. "But by hanging their hat on provably false claims that tend toward the absurd, the opposition delegitimizes their argument."
Digging into the specifics of those accusations, Obama on Tuesday denounced the claim by Palin and other conservative critics that he supports assembling a panel of experts that would decide whether patients live or die.
"The rumor that's been circulating a lot lately is this idea that somehow the House of Representatives voted for 'death panels' that will basically pull the plug on Grandma," Obama said.