PORTSMOUTH, N.H. – President Barack Obama launched a personal effort to reclaim the momentum for his health care initiative Tuesday with a direct rebuttal of what he called “scare tactics,” rumors and misrepresentations.
At a town hall that had the feel of a campaign rally, administration officials sought to tap the skill in confronting public doubts and fears that helped Obama win the White House. Aides who helped direct his campaign are now working to sharpen his health care message, they said.
“Every time we come close to passing health insurance reform, the special interests fight back with everything they’ve got,” Obama told a friendly crowd of 1,800. “They use their influence. They use their political allies to scare and mislead the American people. They start running ads. This is what they always do. We can’t let them do it again.”
Obama delivered the message as anger flared outside his event and at congressional town halls across the country, sentiments the president’s top advisers say they take seriously even as they decry what they view as a mix of genuine outrage and ginned-up activism.
As the president spoke, protesters outside held posters declaring him a socialist and dubbing him “Obamahdinejad” after the Iranian president. People screamed into bullhorns to protest a bigger government role in health care. “Nobama Deathcare!” one sign read. A young girl held up another sign that read: “Obama Lies, Grandma Dies.”
Senior adviser David Axelrod said the president had for weeks been “relishing” the opportunity to engage directly with people to defend his efforts to overhaul the nation’s health care system.
“His instinct whenever there is controversy or debate is to wade in and speak directly to people,” Axelrod said. “There is a whole lot of misinformation out there.”
Axelrod said the angry crowds at congressional town meetings do not reflect the larger society. “Most Americans are interested and concerned about this issue and are listening intently,” he said. “There are people on all sides of the debate who are a little over the edge. They tend to be the best TV.”
In Pennsylvania, Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., faced an unruly audience who booed and jeered as he attemped to respond to accusations that the health care legislation pending in Congress would allow government to deny them care, steal money from their bank accounts and obliterate private insurance.
“You can do whatever the hell you please to do,” one angry man yelled at Specter. “One day God’s going to stand before you, and he’s going to judge you and the rest of your damned cronies up on the Hill.”
Obama’s top advisers said they were adjusting their tactics and message to confront head-on the often caustic public debate.
Tuesday’s town hall was the start of what White House officials promise will be a more pointed response to the crescendo of what Obama called “misinformation” coming from the critics of his health reform efforts.
White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel argued the contrast between Obama – whom he described as “reasoned, calm, looking like an adult in the room” – and some of the more bombastic protesters would also work to the administration’s advantage in the debate.
“I think the public looks at screaming, swastikas, attacks. … It’s not a persuasive argument,” Emanuel said Tuesday.
Aides also took pains to try and point out they were not trying to pack the crowd with Obama supporters. Aides said 70 percent of the tickets were given to people who signed up online, and distributed at random. The remainder went to the school community and local lawmakers’ offices.