GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. – At the end of a week filled with angry voters and sharp attacks on his health care reform plans that seemed to be tossed around everywhere but inside his own town hall meetings, President Barack Obama got the last word.
He used his Saturday evening town hall to pointedly criticize Republicans who have spread the false rumor that “death panels” would be formed as a result of his health care reform plan. In hitting “members of Congress in the other party” who “it turns out” sponsored end-of-life counseling provisions in 2003 similar to the one that led to the current uproar over death panels, Obama directly attacked Georgia Sen. John Isakson as “a Republican congressman a Republican congressman who is now a senator.”
Obama also indirectly went after Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican who was the most high-profile purveyor of the rumor this past week and is among the GOP lawmakers who supported a similar provision in the 2003 Medicare prescription drug bill.
“So when I have people who just a couple of years ago thought this was a good idea now getting on television suggesting that it’s a plot against grandma or to sneak euthanasia into our health care system, that feels dishonest to me,” Obama said.
Grassley, a member of the Finance Committee who has been one of just a handful of Republicans at the health care negotiating table, seemed to back away from the administration's plans during several contentious health care town hall forums of his own last week, where he said that Americans "have every right to fear" the end-of-life counseling provision. But in returning the Republican's fire, Obama risks alienating one of the few Senators who could give his bill bipartisan cover in the Senate.
Amid the contrast in recent days of Obama’s cool-tempered events and fiery ones held by members of Congress, the president also tried to insist that he’s been part of the contentious town hall club, too.
Before taking questions in a high school gymnasium in Grand Junction, a conservative area of Colorado close to the Utah border, Obama pointed to the “pretty good crowd” that turned out for his Montana town hall on Friday. The group was full of supporters, he said, but also people with concerns about his plan and some who “were downright skeptical.”
“I got tough questions,” Obama said, omitting the words “a few” that were written before “tough” in his prepared remarks. “But even though Montanans have strong opinions, they didn’t shout at one another. They were there to listen.”
Obama received a couple more tough questions from the audience on Saturday. But even those came with a spoonful of sugar. One man asked Obama how the public option will impact private insurers, before adding: “And thank you for being here today.” When another man asked Obama about the misinformation that’s been out there on health care and said, “I think we all know where it’s coming from,” someone in the audience piped up to say, “The White House.”
But Obama, who may not have even heard the comment, simply moved on to answer the man’s question.
The tensest exchange came when University of Colorado student Zach Lahn challenged Obama to a health care debate and then asked him to explain how a public option will not hurt private companies and how the government will manage it.
After answering Lahn’s question, Obama gave the young Republican credit for challenging him.
“I like that,” Obama said. “You’ve gotta have a little chutzpah.”
But after the event Lahn said that Obama did not answer his question
“Generalities, that’s what I got,” he said. “I didn’t actually get to the bottom of it. I’ve been listening on the Internet and I’ve been listening on TV, and I haven’t been getting what I wanted, and I’m leaving here with the same feeling.”
Lahn said he got a ticket to Obama’s event by signing up on the White House website. And he stood by his challenge to face off with the president: “Any time he would like to do a debate, I am open to a debate,” he said.
Obama hit the road with his message on Tuesday and pushed on with it through Saturday, when much of the town hall noise had quieted, leaving his as the dominant voice on health care heading into a new week.
Trying to regain a foothold for his top legislative priority, Obama sharpened his message this week against insurance companies, making the case that he’s not seeking to reform health care as much as straighten out health insurance companies. He strengthened his argument at his town hall in New Hampshire on Tuesday and fine-tuned it at one in Montana on Friday and again in Colorado.
On Saturday Obama highlighted a provision he wants in a health care bill that would put an annual cap on how much insurers can charge for out-of-pocket expenses. In fighting back against Republicans who continue to spread the rumor that health care reform will change the laws “so we can pull the plug on grandma,” Obama also invoked his own grandmother.
“I just lost my grandmother last year,” he said, adding that it is outrageous to suggest “that I ran for public office, or that members of Congress are in this so they can pull the plug on grandma.”
It remains to be seen if Obama’s town hall events have had a favorable impact for the White House in the health care debate.
Rather than let Obama's message percolate following an aggressive week, the White House has dispatched spokesman Robert Gibbs and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to the Sunday talk shows, and scheduled more town hall events for next week.
The full-throated effort comes before Obama is expected to lay low during a week-long family vacation on Martha’s Vineyard at the end of the month. The White House does not want to leave a large opening for opposition voices as has happened at times when the president hasn’t been as visible in the debate, most notably the week he was in Russia, Italy and Ghana and Republican criticism of his health plan began to register with the public. Obama is still trying to swat down attack lines that gained momentum during that week he was away, namely that his plan would lead to government-run health care.
On Saturday he cast his fight for reform as a "contest between hope and fear."
He accused “special interests” of trying to foil his plan. “They use their influence. They run their ads. They use their political allies to scare the American people,” Obama said, adding that when FDR led the way on Social Security its supporters were painted as socialists.
The White House estimated the crowd to be at 1,600. Most tickets were distributed randomly among people who signed up on the White House’s website. Others, roughly a third, were distributed by the White House to elected officials and community leaders.
A handful of Colorado Democratic officials were on hand, including Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet, Rep. John Salazar and Gov. Bill Ritter. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was also there, having traveled with Obama from Montana and Yellowstone National Park.
Obama, whose supporters haven’t taken to the health care mission with the verve they afforded his campaign, called on them to rally.
“I need your help,” he said. “I need you to stand against the politics of fear and division. I need you to knock on doors and spread the word. I need you to fight for the security and stability of quality, affordable health care for every American.”