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This is not the August that President Obama had planned.
Obama, who initially demanded that the House and Senate pass health care overhauls by now, was playing defense at a town-hall-style meeting here Tuesday, his signature initiative under increasingly fierce fire.
The session at Portsmouth High School lacked the chanting and catcalls that has disrupted hometown meetings some members of Congress have held, but the president found himself having to deny his proposals would lead to rationing, socialized medicine or government "death panels" to oversee end-of-life care.
"I've seen some of those signs," Obama said, ridiculing accusations from opponents that he wants to create "death panels that will basically pull the plug on grandma because we've decided that it's too expensive to let her live.
"I'm not in favor of that," he told 1,800 people inside the hall while about 1,000 demonstrators outside shouted at each other across police cordons.
The fact that Obama felt the need to deny plans to "pull the plug on grandma" and that the White House moved to schedule a trio of town-hall meetings — the president will hold one in Bozeman, Mont., on Friday and another in Grand Junction, Colo., on Saturday — reflects growing concern within the administration that the most vociferous critics of his health care plans are now dominating the debate.
The reason the White House had pushed for congressional action before the August recess began was precisely to avoid this scenario: critics filling the summer lull with protests and ads that could raise concerns and rally opposition to Obama's top legislative priority.
"It's amplified the stakes," Republican strategist Kevin Madden says of the demonstrations, saying the White House was "late in responding" to them.
"It wasn't something (the White House advisers) wanted the president to get involved in right away, but they could see what was happening," says Democratic consultant Peter Fenn. "You've got to answer the crazy charges."
So Obama was a man on a mission in the Granite State, repeatedly trying to reassure the crowd and his broader national audience that a health-care overhaul would make the system work better for them, not worse.
"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, once we pass reform," he said. "If you do have health insurance, we will make sure that no insurance company or a government bureaucrat gets between you and the care that you need."
From Hillsboro to Lebanon
The audience was so civil (presidents tend to generate more deference than other elected officials) that Obama had to make a point of soliciting skeptical questions after answering a string of friendly ones.
Some members of Congress weren't so lucky, on Tuesday facing shouts, jeers and worse in encounters with voters.
• In Hillsboro, Mo., Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill repeatedly was shouted down at a town hall meeting. Another scheduled at University City High School was called off by the school district, which cited safety concerns.
• In Smyrna, Ga., a swastika was found spray-painted on a sign outside Rep. David Scott's district office a week after he was involved in a contentious community meeting that was called to discuss plans for a new highway but taken over by health care questions. Scott, who is black, said he has received hate mail that described him with a racial epithet and referred to Obama as a Marxist. His office has notified authorities, including the U.S. Capitol Police, who have warned lawmakers about potential threats stemming from the health care debate.
• In Lebanon, Pa., Sen. Arlen Specter, a Republican-turned-Democrat, faced hostile questions and taunts at a town hall meeting. "One day God will stand before you and judge you!" Craig Anthony Miller shouted.
Specter said afterward that in more than four decades in politics he hadn't seen anything like it. "There is more anger in America today than at any time I can remember," he said.
Democrats say conservative groups have ginned up the protests, even giving instructions in how to unnerve members of Congress by shouting questions and chanting. Brad Woodhouse, communications director of the Democratic National Committee, says groups including Americans for Prosperity, Freedom Works and Right Principles also have spread inaccurate information.
Republicans counter that conservative groups have encouraged voters to voice their views. "It is unfortunate that the Democrats and the White House have reduced the concerns of millions of Americans as manufactured and labeled them as rabid extremists," says Gail Gitcho, press secretary of the Republican National Committee.
'I'm really upset'
Outside Obama's forum, demonstrators began gathering on each side of the street leading to the school shortly after 6 a.m. — proponents on the left, opponents on the right.
Gordon Cavis of Dover, N.H., arrived with a new bullhorn, chair and cooler. It was his first protest since the Nixon administration, when he was in college.
"I'm really upset about what's happening in this country," said Cavis, 60, contending that the health plan would cover illegal immigrants, cut Medicare and lead to rationing. (The Democratic plans do call for cuts in Medicare spending but wouldn't cover illegal immigrants.) "I feel that this administration is subverting the Constitution on the same level as Richard Nixon."
About equal numbers on each side used signs to press their points — proponents saying that an overhaul of the health care system is needed to cover the millions of uninsured and control costs, opponents saying it could lead to socialism and rationing.
Many opponents arrived in small groups with hand-made signs, some having driven for several hours from Massachusetts and Maine as well as New Hampshire.
Many proponents showed up in larger groups, some in buses with signs made by pro-Obama organizations such as Organizing for America and Health Care for America Now.
Dimitry Pompee, a 20-year-old college student who backs the president's effort, traded shouts with opponents. "I'm all about discourse and reason, but when they spread this nonsense," he said. "I'm here to yell."
Many of those demonstrating in favor of the health care overhaul said they came for a simple reason: to support their president against what they said were false charges from the other side. "They're using this as a vehicle to ruin Barack Obama," said Edy O'Brien, 73, of Wolfeboro, N.H.
Many of the opponents were elderly people on Medicare who fear the estimated cost of a health care overhaul, generally pegged for the first 10 years at $1 trillion, would lead to cuts in the popular program. "We don't have any money," said Sam Cataldo, 72, a former state representative. "It's going to bankrupt this country."
Pascal and Susan Fusco drove 80 minutes from Rockport, Mass., with signs protesting what they called a threatened government takeover of health care. Their son called them from Martha's Vineyard on Monday to tell them about the event. "This is about power, not health care," said Susan Fusco, 71.
The bedlam was more than Tesa Aliouche, 10, and her 8-year-old brother Aiden could handle. "I wish it would be a little calmer," Tesa said of the demonstrators. "They don't need to yell."
'There is an underlying fear'
Inside the high school, Obama rarely was challenged. He took nine questions, one from Julia Hall, a girl from Malden, Mass., asked what was accurate among all the "mean things" on protesters' signs.
While dismissing some of them as "scare tactics" and "wild misrepresentations," Obama said he understood concerns about whether his plan would lead to a rationing of health care. "I recognize there is an underlying fear here," he said. But insurance companies already are rationing care by the decisions they make, he said — decisions to limit or refuse care that would be prohibited under his plan.
Another legitimate concern, he said, was whether a public insurance plan he favors would overwhelm the private insurance system. Obama said it should not.
"If you think about it, UPS and FedEx are doing just fine," he said. "It's the post office that's always having problems."
Bruce Buchanan, a government professor at the University of Texas at Austin, watched the town hall meeting on TV and thought Obama's "folksy" tone may have helped lower the temperature of the debate.
"Obama feels it's important to go out and do some debunking," Buchanan said. "It's essentially to squelch misinformation, and to the extent that he's able to do that — and he's got the biggest megaphone around — that should help calm the hysteria a little bit."
The fight is hardly over. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce announced it would begin airing 30-second ads in about 20 states Monday criticizing the Democratic health-care proposals. R. Bruce Josten, the chamber's executive vice president, said the multimillion-dollar ad buy would be one of the largest so far critical of Obama's effort.
One difficulty for Obama and his supporters is the lack of a specific plan to describe and defend. The three House committees with oversight of health care have produced plans, but the House has yet to vote on them. In the Senate, one committee has produced a plan but another is still working behind closed doors. Obama has chosen only to outline broad principles.
At his town hall meeting in Pennsylvania, Specter was met by boos when he repeatedly explained there wasn't a single Senate bill yet for him to discuss.
"We're in an awkward interregnum at this moment," says Democratic pollster Peter Hart. "It's so much easier when you have something that is out there pure and simple, black and white, that you're fighting for."
Outlining a general path ahead often doesn't provide the specific questions voters ask about their prescription, their doctor, their ailment, their concern. "It's the devil I know or the devil I don't know," Hart says. "At the moment, it's 'the devil I don't know' that worries a lot of people."