By Anne E. Kornblut and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
PORTSMOUTH, N.H., Aug. 11 -- President Obama began a personal effort Tuesday to reclaim momentum for his health-care initiative with a direct rebuttal of what he called "scare tactics," rumors and misrepresentations.
At a town hall meeting that had the feel of a campaign rally, administration officials sought to tap the skill in confronting public doubts and fears that helped Obama win the White House. Aides who worked on his campaign are now sharpening his health-care message, they said.
"Every time we come close to passing health insurance reform, the special interests fight back with everything they've got," the president told a friendly crowd of 1,800. "They use their influence. They use their political allies to scare and mislead the American people. They start running ads. This is what they always do. We can't let them do it again. Not this time. Not now."
Obama delivered the message as anger flared outside his event and at congressional town hall gatherings nationwide, sentiments that his top advisers say they take seriously even as they decry what they view as a mix of genuine outrage and ginned-up activism.
As the president spoke, demonstrators outside held posters declaring him a socialist and dubbing him "Obamahdinejad," in reference to Iran's president. People screamed into bullhorns to protest a bigger government role in health care. "Nobama Deathcare!" one sign read. A young girl held up a sign that said: "Obama Lies, Grandma Dies." Images of a protester wearing what appeared to be a gun were shown on television.
Senior adviser David Axelrod said the president had for weeks been "relishing" the opportunity to engage with people to defend his efforts to overhaul the health-care system.
"His instinct whenever there is controversy or debate is to wade in and speak directly to people," Axelrod said. "There is a whole lot of misinformation out there. The best way to deal with it is directly."
He said the angry crowds at congressional town hall meetings do not reflect the larger society.
"Most Americans are interested and concerned about this issue and are listening intently," he said. "There are people on all sides of the debate who are a little over the edge. They tend to be the best TV."
In Pennsylvania, Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) faced an unruly audience that booed and jeered as he attempted to respond to accusations that the legislation pending in Congress would allow the government to deny them care, steal money from their bank accounts and obliterate private insurance.
"You can do whatever the hell you please to do," one angry man yelled at Specter. "One day God's going to stand before you, and he's going to judge you and the rest of your damned cronies up on the Hill. And then you'll get your just desserts."
Obama's top advisers said they have been adjusting their tactics and message to confront the often caustic public debate.
"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.
He said the provision in question would allow patients to receive counseling on living wills and end-of-life care -- a concept that has "gotten spun into this idea of death panels."
"I am not in favor of them. I just want to clear the air," he said. In his opening remarks, he said: "Let's disagree over things that are real, not these wild misrepresentations."
Obama moved to refocus the discussion on voters' interest in what people would gain from his health insurance overhaul. He seemed eager to seek out critics, repeatedly calling for skeptical audience members to raise their hands.
While a few of the nine questions Obama fielded challenged how his plan would work, none of them was harsh -- a sharp contrast to the hectoring audiences showing up to challenge lawmakers over the past week since Congress took a break from health care deliberations and headed home for a recess.
Obama answered polite questions from one man who identified himself as a Republican and another who professed to be a "skeptic," using the opportunity to pitch his proposals, blast some practices of private insurance companies and knock down what he called critics' "scare tactics."
"What is truly scary, what is truly risky, is if we do nothing," Obama said. In that case, he warned, health insurance premiums will continue to skyrocket and the national deficit will continue to grow, because Medicare and Medicaid "are on an unsustainable path."
The president cited the case of his mother, who died of cancer in 1995. He also mentioned one woman who testified that her insurance company would not cover her internal organs because of an accident she was in when she was 5 and another whose chemotherapy was stopped because she has gallstones.
"That is wrong, and that will change when we have health-care reform," Obama said.
In addition to rebutting the "death panel" idea, the president dismissed allegations that he is keeping an "enemies list" compiled from the people who write to the White House with questions. His intent, he said, is simply to address voters' concerns, and he chastised news outlets that have portrayed it as otherwise. "Now come on, guys, here I am trying to be responsive to questions that are being raised out there," he said.
Regarding the question of a reduction in Medicare benefits, Obama repeatedly said that senior citizens should be reassured by the fact that the AARP is supporting the overhaul effort.
"Another myth that we've been hearing about is this notion that somehow we're going to be cutting your Medicare benefits. We are not," Obama replied. "AARP would not be endorsing a bill if it was undermining Medicare, okay?"
But after the event, AARP issued a clarification. "While the President was correct that AARP will not endorse a health care reform bill that would reduce Medicare benefits, indications that we have endorsed any of the major health care reform bills currently under consideration in Congress are inaccurate," the statement by chief operating officer Tom Nelson said.
Shear reported from Washington. Staff writer Philip Rucker in Lebanon, Pa., contributed to this report.