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Obama takes the stand on healthcare

Reform won't mean 'death panels' or rationed care, he tells a town hall in New Hampshire. The audience is polite, but Democrats elsewhere face hecklers.

August 12, 2009|Christi Parsons and Janet Hook

PORTSMOUTH, N.H., AND WASHINGTON — President Obama ventured into the summer's unpredictable town hall meetings on healthcare Tuesday, facing a polite audience, while lawmakers elsewhere continued to confront enraged citizens -- a contrast that showed how far the administration still must go to bridge the divide.

The president used his appearance at a high school in Portsmouth, N.H., to frame his view of the healthcare crisis, appeal to wavering Americans and counter what he said were outlandish fallacies in arguments by Republicans and conservatives.

But the outpouring of anger continued from those who see healthcare reform as misguided, even destructive to the country's fabric.

"I think it is very hard because [Democrats] don't have the message machine the Republicans do," said George Lakoff, a UC Berkeley linguistics professor who has advised some Democrats on how to sharpen their message. "The Democrats still believe in Enlightenment reason: If you just tell people the truth, they will come to the right conclusion."

In Missouri, hecklers at Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill's town hall meeting got so rowdy that security officials removed two people.

In Pennsylvania, a protester predicted that God would harshly judge Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter and his "damn cronies on Capitol Hill."

And in Alhambra, several hundred people representing both sides of the debate showed up for a gathering hosted by Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank). People waved signs: "No Nazi Health Care" and "Reform Now."

One woman shouted at Schiff, "Liar, liar, pants on fire!" But Meredith Fox, 51, said she had come to learn more about the issue, and was upset by the crowd's behavior. "People don't even want to listen," Fox said.

As skepticism and suspicion of the Obama proposals ran deep and wide across the country, the White House plan to counter it was on full display Tuesday.

"The way politics works sometimes is that people who want to keep things the way they are will try to scare the heck out of folks, and they'll create boogeymen out there that just aren't real," Obama said. "We can't let them do it again."

The White House pledged to keep hammering away with explanations and arguments.

"Our challenge each and every day," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said, "is to go out and make sure people understand that doing nothing costs the American people more in healthcare spending. . . . It makes our budgetary problems worse, it causes people to lose their coverage and lose their doctor. And we can change all that."

Obama's appearance came as the White House deployed techniques honed during the presidential campaign, including Web videos, fact checks and rapid-response efforts.

"If you look back at the campaign, the credibility of the Republicans became a storyline in itself," said one Democrat close to the White House, who like others discussed the strategy on condition of anonymity. "And when people question your credibility, they'll also question the substance of what you have to offer."

But opponents have managed to slow the healthcare overhaul and postpone Obama's original goal of summer passage, gaining traction by haunting Democrats in their home districts for the August break.

Most persistent are variations on the same question: Will Democrats' reform proposals ultimately put government bureaucrats in charge of deciding who gets healthcare?

The shouting matches show divisions over the idea of universal coverage, former New Hampshire Gov. John H. Sununu said as Obama made his way toward Portsmouth.

"It reflects the intensity of emotion that this brings out in people," said Sununu, a Republican. "It argues, in my opinion, against this rush to judgment."

Based on the persistence of nagging questions, and of at least one outright falsehood, Democrats have a tough road ahead.

Obama took an easy shot Tuesday at correcting the record, addressing former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's claim that Obama's plan would create "death panels" to decide who gets to live and die. There are no such measures in any of the bills under consideration.

"This arose out of a provision in one of the House bills that allowed Medicare to reimburse people for consultations about end-of-life care, setting up living wills," Obama said. "Somehow it's gotten spun into this idea of death panels."

Laughing off the assertion, he said: "Um, I am not in favor of that. I want to clear the air."

Obama went on to note concerns that healthcare changes would mean rationed care. Already, the president argued, "insurance companies are rationing care. They are basically telling you what's covered and what's not."

Obama's answer didn't satisfy Ben Hershenson, a retired pharmacy professor. "I honestly believe there will be rationing beyond what we currently have," he said after the meeting.

Obama was much more assertive in his answers at the town hall than he had been in other settings, one congressional strategist said, adding that such an approach would help Democrats regain control of the debate.

"There is this rage out there," the strategist said. "The right wing has tapped into it. I don't think it's necessarily just about healthcare. [The protesters] see they can get on TV by screaming."

Shortly after Obama began his town hall meeting, protesters outside went from chanting to shouting at each other about whether Obama's plan amounted to "socialism."

One T-shirt transformed the rising-sun emblem of the Obama presidential campaign into a communist hammer and sickle, with "Obamacare" emblazoned beneath it.

Nearby, a young girl held a sign reading, "Obama lies, Grandma dies."

--

cparsons@latimes.com

janet.hook@latimes.com

Times staff writer Gerrick D. Kennedy in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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