PORTSMOUTH, N.H. – President Obama traveled to a town hall meeting in a high school gymnasium here yesterday to counter what he called “wild misrepresentations’’ about his proposed healthcare overhaul – his most concerted effort yet to regain momentum in a debate recently dominated by critics’ aggressive assault.
As demonstrators waved signs and shouted across police tape outside, Obama tried to dispel the emotional argument foes have voiced over the airwaves and in local meetings across the country. He also fought back on points about costs and fears of a government takeover of the healthcare system.
And he argued forcefully that a healthcare overhaul would benefit Americans with insurance as well as those without it by cracking down on insurers and offering alternatives to people who lose their coverage.
The campaign-style forum was the first of three town hall meetings the White House has scheduled in upcoming days to hammer back at critics, who have put Democrats on the defensive with demonstrations around the country.
Obama scoffed at charges spread by opponents that the legislation would result in euthanizing seniors to save money. He insisted the overhaul would not result in higher taxes for the middle class. And he said the plan would not add to the federal deficit.
For too long, he said, Americans have been “held hostage’’ by insurance companies. The new law would protect families from losing health insurance when they get laid off or become sick, and they also could keep their private insurance, he said.
“For all the chatter and the yelling and the shouting and the noise, what you need to know is this: If you don’t have health insurance, you will finally have quality, affordable options when we pass reform,’’ said the president, standing before a packed gymnasium at Portsmouth High School.
“If you do have health insurance,’’ he said, “we will make sure no insurance company or government bureaucracy gets between you and the care you need.’’
The town hall-style meeting was the first Obama has held since the conservative grassroots caught fire late last month, and scenes of furious constituents shouting down lawmakers in their home districts became the defining image of the debate.
Fresh evidence of the backlash greeted the president as he arrived at the school yesterday, as hundreds of protestors, just returned from a morning rally organized by the free-market group Americans For Prosperity, lined the driveway shouting through megaphones. Among their signs: “We can’t afford Obamacare!’’ and “One Nation Under God, Not Under Socialized Health Care.’’
Across the street, hundreds of overhaul proponents waved their own placards – “Health Care is a Right’’ and “Thank You Pres. Obama 4 Keeping Health Care Promise’’ – and shouted over music provided by a group of Ghanian percussionists and Portsmouth’s own Leftist Marching Band
In contrast to local district town halls, where Democratic House and Senate members on summer recess have been interrupted and shouted down, Obama’s audience at the Portsmouth High School gymnasium was tame. The bleachers teemed with Obama supporters.
The White House said tickets to the event were awarded mostly by lottery to people who signed up online, with the balance going to elected officials. But the president wound up preaching to the choir, which applauded wildly at his calls for action on healthcare – at one point breaking into an chant of “Yes we can!’’
The first question was gently delivered by New Hampshire state Representative Peter Schmidt, a Democrat from Dover: “My question is, if Republicans actively refuse to participate in a reasonable way with reasonable proposals, isn’t it time to just say, ‘We’re going to pass what the American people need, and what they want, without them’ ?’’ In response, Obama said he hoped a bipartisan deal would be possible, but he agreed: Passing something is paramount.
Another questioner, apparently referring to statements Obama made in 2003 supporting a Medicare-for-all-style system, asked Obama whether he still favored a “single-payer’’ system. Obama said he did not because it would be too disruptive, but he said he did think a public insurance option would benefit consumers without hurting private insurers, despite their protests to the contrary.
“If you think about UPS and FedEx, they’re doing just fine,’’ he said, to laughter. “No, they are. It’s the Post Office that’s always having problems.’’
One of the few attendees who gently challenged him on whether a federal health board would deny seniors care thanked him profusely and gushed, “He winked at me!’’
“If he had had just one pointed question, and he had addressed it was well as he could, he might have helped subdue some of that wild protesting going on across the country,’’ said David Munsey, a 54-year-old former Obama campaign volunteer from Exeter, N.H.
Had Obama wandered outside of the cool gym, bathed in blue-white light, and into the noisy parking lot, where the hot sun steamed puddles from a morning rainstorm into sultry air, he would have faced quite a different set of questions.
Lisa Gravel, 39, of Manchester, held a sign that said “Stop Trashing Our Constitution.’’
“He really doesn’t want to hear what I have to say, or what any of the people on this side of the street have to say,’’ she said.
Some of the opponents had clearly come to vent. One man read aloud, at top volume, a portion of a draft House bill that he suggested would make it illegal to buy private insurance. One opponent, William Kostric of Manchester, had a handgun strapped to his leg, which he described as “a political statement.’’ The police asked him to move off the school grounds, and he retreated to a nearby church property.
But many others stood quietly with their signs and offered crisp critiques of the situation when asked.
David Call, 60, of Standish, Maine, said he felt the healthcare system needed no overhaul, and that Obama was pushing his proposals too fast. “If it took the president six months to pick a dog, shouldn’t he spend six months on healthcare?’’ he said. “Slow down, what’s the rush?’’