- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 12, 2009

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. | President Obama stepped up to the front lines of the summer health care wars Tuesday and pleaded for a more peaceful exchange of ideas, charging that “special interests” are using histrionics and scare tactics to hijack the debate and derail efforts to fix a broken system.

Hosting his first town-hall meeting since the vocal protests against his proposed overhaul began gaining momentum, Mr. Obama repeatedly dismissed what he said were “boogeymen” being spread by his opponents.

Government bureaucrats would not determine the direction of a person’s medical treatment, he said. His program would save money, not create spiraling deficits, he said, and his plan would not create “death panels that will basically pull the plug on Grandma because we decided it’s too expensive to let her live.”

“I’m not in favor of that,” the president deadpanned, though no one in the mostly sympathetic audience at Portsmouth High School gymnasium raised any of those specific concerns.

“This is what they always do,” he said. “We can’t let them do it again. Not this time. For all the scare tactics out there, what is truly scary, what is truly risky, is if we do nothing.”

For Mr. Obama, the fireworks that have followed this debate into town-hall meetings with members of Congress, were largely absent.

But elsewhere, Democratic lawmakers faced rowdy crowds.

Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Democrat, persisted over shouting constituents to promise that he wouldn’t support a bill that adds to the deficit or gives coverage to illegal immigrants.

In Missouri, Sen. Claire McCaskill reprimanded the crowd for its rudeness as town-hall participants talked over her and one another when debating how the bill would affect veterans and seniors as well as whether it would fund abortion.

Mr. Obama’s event came as advocacy groups on both sides ramped up the advertising campaigns that have been timed to coincide with the congressional summer recess. While the public stands on both sides of the debate, the money stoking the battle is pitting the insurance industry and its lobbyists in Washington against the nation’s labor unions.

Mr. Obama said he was concerned about the coarsening of the debate, calling on his adversaries to debate him on the genuine concerns that separate the two sides.

“Let’s disagree over things that are real, not these wild misrepresentations,” he said.

The president spoke at length about the specific elements of an overhaul that he would like to see emerge from the competing version wending through Congress. For instance, he said, he wanted to preserve a public health care option, but wants it to be self-sustaining. When trying to explain the financing of the plan, Mr. Obama said if the plan costs $800 billion to $1 trillion over 10 years, then two-thirds of that cost would be covered by eliminating inefficiencies.

His proposal to cover the remaining $300 billion to $400 billion, Mr. Obama said, is to restrict allowances that enable wealthy taxpayers to take bigger charitable deductions than middle-class taxpayers.

“So what I’ve said is let’s just even it out,” Mr. Obama said. “That would actually raise sufficient money.”

At one point in his speech, the president said his proposal was endorsed by the AARP, which prompted the seniors’ group to say that Mr. Obama had gone too far.

“We have the AARP onboard because they know this is a good deal for our seniors,” Mr. Obama told the audience, which included a group in AARP T-shirts. He added that “AARP would not be endorsing a bill if it was undermining Medicare.”

But Tom Nelson, AARP’s chief operating officer, later said his group had not endorsed any health care legislation and would not endorse any bill that cut Medicare benefits. “Indications that we have endorsed any of the major health care reform bills currently under consideration in Congress are inaccurate,” he said.

Polls show widespread suspicion among Medicare beneficiaries that the cost of covering the uninsured will result in fewer benefits for them. All the major Democratic health care proposals on Capitol Hill include unspecified Medicare cuts, although the White House and its allies in Congress insist that benefit cuts are not on the table.

The president began the question-and-answer portion of the event by saying he wanted to hear from “skeptics.” But the most noteworthy aspect of the event was the silence of the opponents who have used vocal outbursts to gain media attention across the nation.

Some of those left out of the event speculated that the White House had cleansed the attendance list of potential critics.

The White House, apparently sensitive to the potential for bad optics, issued an advisory to the media that said tickets were made widely available to the public. Seventy percent of the tickets were made available through a Web site, and a computer randomly selected the recipients.

“There was no screening,” assistant press secretary Reid Cherlin said after the event. “This event was not rigged.”

Interviews with ticket holders, however, suggested that through whatever means, a large portion of the seats went to participants who were friendly to the president’s position.

In the hours before the town-hall meeting got under way, yellow police tape separated the boisterous crowds from about 1,800 ticket holders, snaking across the school grounds. Many of those with tickets had connections to local labor unions or to local Democratic officials. The vast majority wore “Health Care Now” stickers.

“I fully support it,” said Matthew Murray, 31, an air traffic controller from the Nashua area who said he obtained his ticket from the AFL-CIO.

Mr. Murray, a diabetic, said the cost of his medical supplies has been steadily increasing. He is hoping the Obama plan will help. “Any minor burden it puts on my taxes would be worth it,” he said.

Behind the police tape, real-estate broker Charles Wibel, 70, of Farmington said he made repeated attempts through the president’s Web site to obtain a seat in the high school gymnasium.

“Nothing about this is random,” he said. “We ought to have animal control here. I’ve never seen so many sheep.”

The scene inside the gym offered a stark contrast to the boisterous activity outside. Under overcast skies, heavy crowds lined the campus driveway, with hundreds of protesters chanting and waving signs in opposition to the health care proposals. Another group, equally large, rallied in support of the president’s plan.

Many of the protesters who came to voice their opposition said they remained deeply concerned about the cost of the overhaul and personally hurt by the characterization that they were part of an orchestrated mob.

“We made our own signs,” said Sally Staude, 54, of Newington, who described her profession as medical research. “We’re not an angry mob. Our concerns are real.”

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