BELGRADE, MONT. — Setting out on a series of town hall meetings to bolster support for his healthcare overhaul, President Obama insisted he was seeking his skeptics. Here in southwest Montana on Friday, he found two people who openly challenged the cost of plans now wending their way through Congress and the effect they would have on private insurers.
But Obama did not face any of the vitriol that has been directed at lawmakers who are out talking to constituents during the August congressional recess.
A civil and receptive audience greeted Obama inside an airport hangar in the second of three presidential town halls this week. His remarks in Montana, a state he narrowly lost in the 2008 election, included a campaign-style plea for people to knock on doors and help him clear up misconceptions about healthcare legislation.
The "ruckus" being portrayed on the cable networks, the president said, was not representative of the constructive conversations taking place across the country about how to improve the quality of patient care and reduce costs.
"Every time we are in sight of health insurance reform, the special interests fight back with everything they've got," Obama told the crowd, many of whom got tickets to the event by waiting in line at the Bozeman and Belgrade city halls. "They run their ads. They use their political allies to scare the American people. Well, we cannot let them do it again."
Rather than focusing on the sensational allegations about the proposed overhaul that have dominated the news this week, Obama's audience expressed concerns about how their medical care and finances would be affected.
Randy Rathie, 56, a welder who pays his medical bills out of pocket, said he was worried that Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) -- chairman of the influential Senate Finance Committee who also spoke at the town hall -- had been "locked up in a dark room" negotiating how to pay for the legislation, which is estimated to cost $1 trillion over a decade.
"We keep getting the bull. . . . You can't tell us how you're going to pay for this," Rathie said. "You're saving here, you're saving over there, you're going to take a little money here, you're going to take a little money there. But you have no money. The only way you're going to get that money is to raise our taxes."
Obama responded that two-thirds of the overhaul could be paid for by eliminating waste within government programs and that he remained committed to his campaign promise not raise taxes on families making less than $250,000 a year.
The president also said he would not support legislation that increases the deficit.
"It amuses me sometimes when I hear some of the opponents of healthcare reform . . . yelling about how we can't afford this, when Max [Baucus] and I are actually proposing to pay for it, and they passed something that they didn't pay for at all," Obama said, referring to the prescription drug component of Medicare.
Rathie, of Ekalaka, said after the event that he was still convinced his taxes would go up. But, he added, he felt a little more comfortable with Obama's agenda: "I saw a little more honesty today in him. He's not beating around the bush so bad."
Obama did not, however, win over insurance salesman Marc Montgomery of Helena, who accused him of vilifying the insurance companies.
Montgomery, 52, criticized Obama's support for a government-run insurance plan -- one option that could be available in the healthcare overhaul.
Though the president emphasized that any public plan would not be subsidized, Montgomery said he did not think Obama was being genuine. "A public plan will eventually drive individuals or other insurance companies out of business because we can't compete with a plan that's subsidized by taxes," Montgomery said.
Obama focused Friday on broad elements of what he would like to see in the final legislation, including a prohibition on denying insurance on the basis of a preexisting condition, an annual limit on out-of-pocket expenses and full coverage for preventive care.
But some of his supporters questioned whether he was offering enough details to counter his critics.
Vicky Crampton, 61, was one of several hundred people for and against the healthcare overhaul who gathered on a field outside the airport -- well out of the president's earshot. She said she was worried that Obama's inclination to let lawmakers hash out the details had created confusion and hampered public support: "There's really no bill to rally around," she said, adding, "I think we need to see more passion from him. I don't even think he should go on vacation."
Late Friday afternoon, Obama headed for a creek outside Bozeman with a fishing rod.