Obama Pushes Insurance Reforms

At a town hall style meeting in Montana, President Barack Obama says he isn't trying to vilify insurance companies. He says he's just trying to stop their practices that hurt people. Video by AP
By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 15, 2009

BELGRADE, Mont., Aug. 14 -- President Obama on Friday promised a new era of protections against insurance companies that drop customers when medical crises hit and said people who already have coverage would be among the biggest beneficiaries of his plans to revamp the health-care system.

Eager to address criticism of Democratic plans for health-care reform, Obama traveled here and spoke at a campaign-style town hall meeting, the kind of forum where his allies in Congress have faced boos and jeers from skeptical constituents in recent days.

But the president, whose popularity and powers of persuasion may well make him the reform effort's most effective spokesman, encountered the same difficulty he faced at a town hall meeting this week in New Hampshire: For the most part, the critics were nowhere to be seen.

The crowd of about 1,300 that gathered in an airplane hangar here Friday was overwhelmingly friendly and supportive, applauding repeatedly. Only two men put the president on the spot -- something White House officials had indicated they were hoping would happen more often.

A welder wearing a National Rifle Association jacket accused Obama of secretly planning to pay for the reforms by raising taxes, and an insurance salesman wanted the president to explain why he was "vilifying" insurance companies.

Obama gave both men detailed answers, explaining how he would pay for the changes -- not by taxing the middle class -- and saying that, although some insurance companies have been "constructive," others have fought against "any kind of reform proposals."

Earlier in the week, senior Obama adviser David Axelrod said White House officials were hoping to have Obama answering questions -- even tough questions -- because they have confidence in his ability to offer satisfying explanations the American public will believe.

"It's very important," Axelrod said. "There is a whole lot of misinformation out there. The best way to deal with it is directly."

'He Needs a Confrontation'

The composition of the crowds at the town hall events is a delicate matter for the White House. Having enthusiastic, friendly crowds that demonstrate support for the president's agenda is a positive thing. And Obama's allies are eager to show the contrast between his supporters and the angriest opponents of his plans.

But the president clearly needs to have a foil against which to offer his corrections to what he considers mischaracterizations of the health-reform plans. John Weaver, the political strategist who helped John McCain organize hundreds of often-confrontational town hall meetings, said Obama needs to put himself in tougher venues where he can confront his critics.

"He needs a confrontation to end some of this information," Weaver said. "We don't know if that's his strength. But that's his opportunity right now. If he really wants to turn the tide of the debate, he has to engage."

Brian Burgess, a spokesman for Conservatives for Patients' Rights, which opposes the president's health-care plans, said that Obama should be eager for a more confrontational crowd but that the White House should also be anxious about what that might bring.

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