LIZ SIDOTI, Associated Press Writer
BIG SKY, Mont. - Fighting for control of the health care debate, President Barack Obama is using political tactics and rhetorical devices honed in his White House campaign to regain the upper hand over increasingly vocal critics.
In person and over the Internet, Obama is trying to counter intense public skepticism that's flared nationwide in recent weeks over Democrats' plans to overhaul the nation's health care system. It's his top domestic priority and arguably his most challenging political fight yet as president, in no small part because of the vast number of diverse stake-holders involved.
Familiar tools from the Obama candidacy are being used in the struggle, adapted to his office: among them the town hall meetings with his sleeves rolled up, a quick-response Web site to douse critics' claims, chain e-mails and a populist pitch against the entrenched powers in Washington.
Plus he's got the White House bully pulpit, using it Saturday in his weekly radio and Internet address.
"I know there's plenty of real concern and skepticism out there," he said. "I know that in a time of economic upheaval, the idea of change can be unsettling, and I know that there are folks who believe that government should have no role at all in solving our problems."
Careful not to alienate opponents even while taking them on, he cited "legitimate differences worthy of the real discussion that America deserves." But, as Democratic allies face taunts and insults at town hall style gatherings nationwide, Obama implored people to "lower our voices, listen to one another and talk about differences that really exist."
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, in the GOP's weekly address, pressed for a bipartisan measure.
"Ensuring access to affordable and quality health care for every American is not a Republican or Democrat issue -- it is an American issue," he said. "Our nation expects us to solve this challenge in an open, honest and responsible manner. More spending, more taxes and more government is not the answer.
He said he strongly encourages respectful debate over the issue but cautioned against "stifling these discussions" and added: "There is nothing un-American about disagreements. In fact, our great nation was founded on speaking our minds."
Obama seeks legislation that would provide coverage for millions of uninsured people while controlling skyrocketing costs, and the debate over it has turned increasingly noisy and partisan. Critics say proposals in Congress would lead to too much money spent and too much government intrusion. Conservative activists and Obama opponents have stepped up their attacks in recent weeks.
So, in full-on battle mode, the charismatic campaigner is hosting local question-and-answer sessions that proved valuable during the presidential race. The Democratic National Committee and Obama allies are spending millions on advertising campaigns to influence public opinion, much like they did last year. Associates also are being deployed again. And the White House is using Internet tools honed during his groundbreaking bid to rally supporters.
Over the past week, White House senior adviser David Axelrod asked supporters to forward a chain e-mail to counter criticism that's circulating online, and the White House launched a "Reality Check" Web site "to help Americans clear up health care lies and misinformation."
DNC Chairman Tim Kaine urged the public to visit the site, arguing that "reform opponents" have stepped up their game because they can tell the White House has "made more progress on health insurance reform than we made in the previous 60 years."
Those efforts were reminiscent of the Obama team's attempts to debunk Internet rumors about his faith and upbringing during the campaign.
Also similar: the DNC's creation of a Web video -- this one called "What You Won't See on National Cable News" -- to highlight civil town hall meetings across the country. Obama also plans to speak to backers by telephone during a "National Call-In for Healthcare Reform" event Wednesday.
The town hall style events and the way Obama is pitching his plan almost make it feel as though he's a candidate again.
Over the past week, he's fielded questions from audiences in Portsmouth, N.H., and Belgrade, Mont. He holds his third such event Saturday in Grand Junction, Colo. Thus far, he's faced polite crowds, a stark contrast to the taunts and jeers Democratic lawmakers have endured.
It's clear he's in campaign mode, bounding on stage and going tieless, with his jacket off and shirt sleeves rolled.
Much like in the campaign, he is using people's stories to illustrate his points.
He tells the tale of Lori Hitchcock of New Hampshire, who was denied coverage because of a pre-existing condition and who has been uninsured for two years because she can't find a job. He talks about Katie Gibson of Montana, whose coverage was dropped because of a pre-existing condition even though her new insurance company confirmed she'd be eligible.
"These are the stories that aren't being told -- stories of a health care system that works better for the insurance industry than it does for the American people," he said in his weekly address.
He is railing against interest groups and lobbyists again. Obama claims these forces are engaging in the politics of fear because a business-as-usual system benefits them and disadvantages the everyday American.
"The history is clear -- every time we come close to passing health insurance reform, the special interests with a stake in the status quo use their influence and political allies to scare and mislead the American people," Obama said.