Reporting from Iowa City, Iowa — With his healthcare overhaul now enshrined in law, President Obama warned Republicans Thursday that any attempt to repeal the measure would backfire and that Americans will quickly see that the new package of medical benefits they receive will not usher in "Armageddon."
Obama returned to the city where he first laid out his healthcare proposal as a candidate for president nearly three years ago, the first stop in an aggressive White House push to defend a plan that is likely to be a focal point of the midterm elections in November.
Some Republicans have said they will campaign on a promise to repeal the bill, which the president signed into law Tuesday. In a gust of election-year bravado, Obama dared them to try it. Meanwhile, the Senate approved a second healthcare reconciliation bill today and returned it to the House for a final vote.
"They're actually going to run on a platform of repeal in November," said Obama, appearing before 3,000 people at the University of Iowa fieldhouse. "And my attitude is, go for it! If these congressmen in Washington want to come here in Iowa and tell small-business owners that they plan to take away their tax credits and essentially raise their taxes, be my guest."
The president was heckled at one point by a man in the crowd who said the bill should have gone further and included a "public option" -- a government-run program that would compete with private insurance plans.
"That's not in it," Obama said.
"Why not?" came the reply.
"Because we couldn't get it through Congress, that's why," Obama said, adding: "There's no need to shout, young man."
After the bill passed, certain Democratic lawmakers were targets of vandalism and threats. Emotions are still raw. A few dozen protesters gathered outside the fieldhouse carrying signs that read, "Can We Impeach Yet?" and "Dictator Obama."
Speaking without his suit jacket, Obama suggested that opposition springs from "fear-mongering and plenty of overheated rhetoric."
He added: "You turn on the news, you'll see the same folks are still shouting about how it's going to be the end of the world because this bill passed. . . . Leaders of the Republican Party, they called the passage of this bill 'Armageddon.' Armageddon! End of freedom as we know it! So after I signed the bill I looked around to see if there were any asteroids falling. Some cracks opening up in the Earth! Turned out it was a nice day!"
Obama's road show is an attempt to reshape public perceptions, creating a more favorable climate for some Democratic candidates who cast votes that proved unpopular with constituents.
In the run-up to the pivotal House vote on Sunday, polls showed most people disliked the legislation. Those numbers may be turning around. A new Gallup poll shows that by a 9 percentage point margin, more people believed passage of the bill to be "a good thing" than not.
In his speech, Obama sought to temper expectations. Healthcare costs won't drop right away, he said, reminding listeners that the plan will be phased in over four years.
"There are still going to be aspects of the healthcare system that are very frustrating over the next several years," he said. "But we have built into law all sort of measures . . . so that over time Americans are going to save money."
The bill that Obama signed into law this week differs in some respects from what candidate Obama promised. In his speech in Iowa City on May 29, 2007, Obama said his healthcare proposal would provide "universal" coverage.
It will fall short of that goal. In an analysis, the Congressional Budget Office said the new law will cover 94% of non-elderly Americans by 2019, excluding illegal immigrants. Today, about 83% are covered.
But Obama said the changes are a vast improvement over the current system.
The law, he said, "finally tells the insurance companies that in exchange for all the new customers they're about to get, they've got to start playing by a new set of rules that treats everybody honestly and treats everybody fairly. The days of the insurance industry running roughshod over the American people are over."
Outside the fieldhouse, Mike Moehlenhof, a 24-year-old college student majoring in accounting, carried a "tea party" sign. Asked about the new law, he said he was displeased that it contains a "public option." Told that it does not, he said he wasn't convinced.
"It's a major expenditure that for me as a young man, I'll have to pay for for the rest of my life," Moehlenhof said.