- The Washington Times - Friday, August 14, 2009

BELGRADE, Mont. — President Obama began a four-day Western swing Friday in which he aims to persuade Americans that his proposed overhaul to the nation’s health-care system would yield lower costs and better care, not spiraling deficits and a bureaucratic morass.

The second in a series of town hall meetings he has planned for the critical period while Congress stands in recess was held in an airport hangar here, a rustic city of 5,700, ringed by mountains, where questioners were polite, but not uniformly supportive.

Marc Montgomery, 52, an insurance broker from Helena, was one of nine people the president called on for questions. He chided Mr. Obama for his recent decision to focus his bid for a health-care overhaul on the failings of the insurance industry. Why, Mr. Montgomery asked, was the president “vilifying” insurance brokers?

“That’s a fair question,” Mr. Obama conceded. “My intent is not to vilify insurance companies. What we do have to make sure of is that certain practices that are very tough on people, that those practices change.”

Mr. Obama spent the brunt of the event calmly trying to regain control of a health-care sales pitch that has been overshadowed in recent weeks by angry protests. His goal, he told the crowd, was to set straight those who have become convinced that his plan would be either be unsustainable financially, would lead to health-care rationing, or push seniors toward euthanasia as a cost-saving measure.

With Sen. Max Baucus, Montana Democrat and the Senate Finance Committee chairman who is now driving the legislative effort, seated behind him on stage, the president made repeated references to the the senator’s effort to win passage of a comprehensive bill.

Mr. Baucus spoke only briefly at the event, telling the crowd he had been traveling the state “busting myths about health care.” The president also continued to try to lower take the temperature in the debate, urging the audience to embrace a brand of civil discussion that he said was in the American tradition.

“I know there has been a lot of attention paid to some of the town hall meetings going on around the country, especially when tempers flare. TV loves a ruckus,” Mr. Obama said.

Preventing a ruckus was not a tough slog for Mr. Obama though. Of the 1,300 people attending, about one-third were provided tickets through Democratic elected officials or others friendly to the administration.

And though the remaining tickets were handed out at two local city halls, there was little question that the bulk of them were grabbed by the president’s supporters. Mr. Obama repeatedly received rousing ovations, and was not once interrupted.

Mr. Obama’s west coast swing, which will also include a town-hall meeting Saturday in Colorado, comes during a crucial period for his most important legislative initiative. While on recess, members of Congress are trying to sort out what their constituents want from health-care legislation that is pending before them back in Washington.

Wealthy interest groups on all sides of the debate are investing heavily in persuasion campaigns that aim to convince those members of Congress to return with the right prescription. A coalition that includes the pharmaceutical industry lobby and the nation’s largest union for healthcare employees, the Service Employees International Union, have invested more than $12 million in television ads that promote the president’s plan.

Insurance companies and other groups that are opposing his plan have pushed back with vigor. There efforts have gained momentum with help from the president’s conservative critics, who have been an outspoken and at times disruptive force at town hall meetings held around the country by members of congress.

Terry Bannon, 58, a general contractor in the audience from Belgrade, said he came to the town hall with doubts about the president’s ability to deliver the kind of health care system he seemed to be promising.

“The words ‘trust me’ and ‘government’ don’t work well together any more,” he said.

Story Continues →