By Anne E. Kornblut and Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 17, 2009 5:23 PM
With his health-care overhaul slowly moving through Congress absent Republican support, President Obama turned to a solidly young, liberal audience on Thursday morning, rallying students at the University of Maryland to help him face the "defining struggle of this generation."
"When you're young, I know this isn't always an issue that you have at the top of your mind. You think you're invincible. That's how I thought," Obama said at the university's Comcast Center.
Obama tailored his remarks to the student crowd, hoping to arm young people -- who are among the least likely to purchase health insurance but could form an important core of a new health-care system -- with new facts and enthusiasm in the debate. Obama declared that young people would be able to stay on their parents' insurance longer -- until age 26.
"I may not be the first president to take on health-care reform, but I'm determined to be the last," he said. "The good news is, we are now closer to reform than we have ever been," he said, estimating that there is about 80 percent agreement in the House and Senate. His brief mention of the plan put forward Wednesday by Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) -- one of the few comments the White House has made on that proposal -- drew boos from the audience.
And he highlighted his administration's experiment with alternatives to medical malpractice lawsuits. The White House announced Thursday that it would provide $25 million in demonstration grants for such efforts. The issue is dear to many Republicans, and, if it were included in health-care overhaul, could help win some support from GOP lawmakers.
"I don't think this is a silver bullet, but I want to explore the idea," Obama said. "I'm going to seek common ground in the days ahead."
The crowd was overwhelmingly friendly to the president -- Obama interrupted his speech to reply, "I love you too," to one person in the audience who had called out to him -- but one heckler caused Obama to briefly pause and ask what the commotion was. The protester was in the back of the arena, however, and the president continued talking. When security officers escorted the man out, the rest of the audience stood and cheered.
Outside the building, where the Maryland Terrapins play basketball, a smattering of people made their case against the Obama plan. Samantha Bennett, 20, a junior majoring in communications, held up a sign that read: "UMD Students Against Nationalized Healthcare."
"This is really a university that has a liberal viewpoint, so we wanted to come out and present the minority view of conservatives," said Bennett, who is from the Baltimore area. Bennett said the Obama plan gave government too large a role in the health-care overhaul.
Not far away, Brad Tidwell, 22, an Arlington resident who graduated from U-Md. this year, drew plenty of stares from those going inside with his sign stating "Joe Wilson was right."
"You can take or leave the civility of the issue, but Joe Wilson was completely right. They [Democrats] have done nothing," Tidwell said. "They have blocked the amendments on this bill to prevent money going to illegal aliens."
Obama made his case for reforming the nation's health-care system by citing anecdotes and statistics, including, "More than one-third of all young adults have trouble paying their medical debts." He added later, "In the United States, nobody should go broke because they get sick."
"I've heard a lot of Republicans say they want to 'kill Obamacare,' " the president said, "Some, they even raise money off it. But when you ask these folks what exactly my plan does, they've got it all wrong." The Republican solution, he said, is to promote "the same old, same old."
"We don't feed on anger. We feed on hope and possibility," Obama added.
"Health care -- now!" supporters chanted. "Yes we can!"
Saying that "no one ever said change was going to be easy," Obama linked his push for health-care reform to such epochal U.S. events as the fight for civil rights and for women's suffrage. And he said that effort "begins right here in College Park . . . and campuses all over the country, just as it always has."
Obama was introduced at the event by Rachel Peck, a 20-year-old junior who was diagnosed with thyroid cancer earlier this year, according to a White House fact sheet. Although Peck was covered under her parents' insurance, which she described as "crucial" in saving her life, she said she is worried about getting coverage, given her preexisting condition, when she enters the workforce.
"My case is one that will require constant care," she said. "Less than two years from now, when I graduate from this school, I will no longer be covered under my parents' health insurance plan. What will happen to me then?"
At the national level, health care may be overshadowed by other events, including an already busy morning for the president. Just before leaving for the university, Obama announced that the United States will drop plans for a missile shield in Eastern Europe. Later in the day, he was to bestow his first Medal of Honor, to an Army sergeant who died on a mission in Afghanistan.
Still, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) had declared the College Park health-care speech "historic," and fans in the audience agreed. Even before Obama arrived, supporters were on their feet cheering. And Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, not always a celebrity in his own right, drew a roar when he made introductory remarks.
"The time has finally come to provide affordable, accessible, quality health care to every single American," Locke said. The crowd went wild.
In addition to O'Malley, both of Maryland's senators, Barbara A. Mikulski (D) and Benjamin L. Cardin (D), attended the event, as did Reps. Steny H. Hoyer (D), Elijah E. Cummings (D), Donna F. Edwards (D) and Chris Van Hollen (D) and numerous members of the Maryland House of Delegates.
The Comcast Center filled well before Obama began speaking, but a crowd remained outside in the rain, hoping officials would relent and let them in.
"The doors are locked. That's it -- you are not getting in," a heavily armed police officer announced to the crowd.
"Do you not like Obama?" shouted one.
"You were late," the officer said.
Rob Martinsen, a waiter at a College Park restaurant who could not attend the event because his shift starts at noon, came to see the spectacle nonetheless.
"I thought there might be some good confrontations" between Obama followers and the protesters, Martinsen said, adding that he counts himself in the "followers" group. "Too bad, though, everyone is on their best behavior."
Martinsen said he hasn't followed the details of the health-care debate, but he supports whatever option will get him cheap health care. He said that means either government subsidies, or "people need to start tipping their waiters better. Fifteen percent isn't going to buy me insurance."
Martinsen chatted briefly with a woman handing out literature arguing against Obama's plan, but he walked away unconvinced.
"Their main point is it's expensive, but that shouldn't matter too much," he said. "Health care is a right."
Staff writer Hamil R. Harris contributed to this report.