PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — Braced for a fight he never got, President Barack Obama went on the offensive in support of his health care plan Tuesday, urging a town hall audience not to listen to those who seek to "scare and mislead the American people."
"For all the scare tactics out there, what is truly scary is if we do nothing," Obama told a friendly crowd of about 1,800 in a high school auditorium and a nationwide audience watching on cable television.
The White House had been ready for an unruly reception from opponents of overhauling health care. There was no sign of that, perhaps because of the makeup of the day's crowd or out of traditional deference for the president.
Obama's push came amid a string of disruptive health care town halls nationwide that have overshadowed his message and threatened to derail support in Congress. Indeed, Republican-turned-Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter faced hostile questions, taunts and jeers earlier Tuesday as he tried to explain his positions at a town hall in Lebanon, Pa. Voter fears of a government takeover of health care were on stark display.
Some lawmakers, holding forums during Congress' August recess, have gone so far as to replace public forums with teleconferences or step up security to keep protesters at bay.
But the Democratic president faced no outbursts.
The encounter was so friendly, in fact, that by the end Obama was even asking for skeptical questioners to come forward – to no avail.
He told his audience reassuringly, "For all the chatter and the yelling and the shouting and the noise, what you need to know is this ... if you do have health insurance, we will make sure that no insurance company or government bureaucrat gets between you and the care you need."
Retooling his message amid sliding support, he addressed some of his remarks to a vital and skeptical audience: the tens of millions of people who already have health insurance and are generally satisfied with the care they get.
He said the overhaul is essential to them, too, contending it is the way to keep control in their hands. Obama said while government bureaucrats should not meddle with people's care, bureaucrats at insurance companies should not, either.
The president accused critics of creating "boogeymen."
"Spread the facts. Let's get this done," Obama implored the crowd.
The tone was set as soon as Obama arrived. He came in to applause and told one person who shouted support, "I love you back."
One man identified himself as a Republican and said, "I don't know what I'm doing here." The Democratic president said he was happy to have him in attendance.
Toward the end of the session, Obama went so far as to ask people to give him skeptical questions. The best he got were queries about why he doesn't chastise Congress more and where the nation would find the additional doctors and nurses it needs.
Heading toward a pivotal fall debate before congressional action, Obama is scrambling to get lawmakers and the public behind what would be the most ambitious and costly changes to the health care system in decades.
He reiterated his determination that the plan be paid for without adding to the nation's soaring deficit.
He took on what he described as erroneous claims that have risen as the debate in Washington and the nation has developed.
He singled out the charge that the Democratic health care legislation would create "death panels" to deny care to frail seniors. Former Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin has said the Democrats' legislation includes "death panels" that could deny care.
Obama declared that a provision that he said had caused the uproar would only authorize Medicare to pay doctors for counseling patients about end-of-life care, living wills, hospice care and other issues, if the patients wanted it. It would not "basically pull the plug on grandma because we decided that it's too expensive to let her live anymore," as Obama put it.
The people Obama called on for questions asked him largely about their personal medical concerns and how any new law would affect them. "We're not talking about cutting Medicare benefits," he said, trying to reassure one questioner.
Obama sought to dispel talk that his ultimate goal is a single-payer federal health care system, like that in countries such as Canada.
He also disputed the notion that adding a government-run insurance plan into a menu of options from which people could pick would drive private insurers out of business, in effect making the system single-payer by default.
As long as they have a good product and the government plan has to sustain itself through premiums and other non-tax revenue, private insurers should be able to compete with the government plan, Obama said.
"They do it all the time," he said. "UPS and FedEx are doing just fine. ... It's the Post Office that's always having problems."
In its first TV ads of this year's health care fight, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce will begin airing 30-second spots in about 20 states Wednesday criticizing the Democratic proposal to offer optional government health coverage, according to R. Bruce Josten, executive vice president of the nation's largest business group.
The multimillion-dollar buy would be one of the largest so far critical of Obama's effort, in a year in which opponents have been heavily outspent by supporters of the president's plan. The spots, showing a balloon being inflated until it bursts, says, "Big tax increases, huge deficits, expanded government control of health care. Call Congress."
Seventy percent of the tickets were distributed by an online lottery that made computerized random choices on Saturday, and conservative activists and Obama opponents secured some tickets. But though they tried to be picked for questions by standing and wildly waving their arms, they also seemed mindful of what New Hampshire Republican Party Chairman John H. Sununu had said before the town hall: He hoped Obama would get a respectful reception.
There were protests outside. About 200 opponents of his plan lined up on the road to the event site across from about as many supporters.