BELGRADE, Mont. — Trying to lower the temperature of the health care fight, President Barack Obama on Friday denounced news media emphasis on angry protesters at town-hall meetings.
Obama ventured west for the latest of his own town hall-style events, fielding polite but occasionally tough questions — one from a man declaring the president couldn't pay for his plan without raising taxes. Tieless and rolling up his sleeves in campaign mode, Obama pitched his overhaul plan to a crowd in an airport hangar near Bozeman.
The president didn't deny that there have been angry outbursts by foes of his plan at town halls featuring Democratic lawmakers this month. But he said that was hardly the whole story.
"TV loves a ruckus," Obama said. "What you haven't seen on TV and what makes me proud are the many constructive meetings going on all over the country."
While hundreds demonstrated outside, there was no sign of protesters on the airstrip where Air Force One landed or inside the hangar. Obama has another town hall Saturday in Colorado.
Fear of taxe hike
Friday's crowd, estimated by the White House at about 1,300 people, was mostly supportive, cheering Obama frequently, though he did get a few pointed questions. One came from Randy Rathie, who called himself "a proud NRA member," referring to the National Rifle Association, and said he got most of his news from cable TV.
"You can't tell us how you're going to pay for this," Rathie said of Obama's health care overhaul. "The only way you're going to get that money is raise our taxes."
"You are absolutely right," Obama said. "I can't cover another 46 million people for free. I can't do that. We're going to have to find money from somewhere."
He noted a congressional estimate that legislation being considered in the Senate could cost $800 billion to $900 billion over 10 years.
Obama has proposed higher taxes for families earning more than $250,000 a year. He said there were also other ways to find money, including streamlining the system and eliminating what he said were subsidies to insurance companies.
"But your point is well-taken," Obama said. "I appreciate your question and the respectful way you asked it."
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Later, Rathie told CNN he was "well-impressed" with how Obama handled his question. "Now he's given me his word, personally, that he's not going to raise my taxes," Rathie said, but at the same time, "they're trying to put in a program that they don't even understand."
'Vilifying' insurance companies
Another participant, who said his job was selling health-insurance policies, asked Obama why he had changed his strategy from one of reaching out to insurance companies to "vilifying" them.
"My intent is not to vilify insurance companies," Obama said. "I say, 'Let's work with the existing system.'" But he said some bad practices of insurance companies "are tough on people" and "have to change," including such things as denying coverage for pre-existing conditions.
It's difficult, he said, to achieve true reform "unless we've got everybody covered."
Minutes after Obama landed, a downpour began, making it difficult to hear inside the metal-roofed hangar. But the rain quickly let up. Tickets were distributed on a first-come, first-served basis to residents of Bozeman and Belgrade, with a limit of two to a family.
The president appeared ready to campaign. He showed up in a suit, but no tie. As he began to take questions, he took off his coat and rolled up his sleeves.
"I know there's been a lot of attention paid to some of the town hall meetings that are going on around the country, especially when tempers flare," Obama said.
He said that what wasn't being shown were the gatherings in which people "are coming together and having a civil, honest, often difficult conversation about how we can improve the system."
Obama aimed part of his pitch at Americans who already have health insurance.
"Most of us have insurance, and most of us think, knock on wood, and think: 'I'm going to stay healthy,'" Obama said.
He cited examples in which people have lost their insurance, including when going from job to job and because of pre-existing conditions.
'Do it right'
Obama made his latest appearance as a prominent ally, John Podesta, said the high-decibel attacks are designed to destroy his presidency rather than merely defeat health care legislation.
At a breakfast with reporters in Washington, Podesta predicted such tactics would backfire on Republicans and give the president a chance to "capture the center of the debate."
Podesta, who heads the Center for American Progress and played a key role in last winter's presidential transition, said the time for bipartisan negotiations in the Senate is drawing to a close. When lawmakers return in September, he said, "either they have to have a deal or he (Obama) has to say, 'This is what it is.'"
A close legislative ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Rep. John Murtha told WJPA-AM Radio in western Pennsylvania that Congress is going to "do it right" when it comes to passing health care legislation. But he said it's not clear how soon that will be.
There have been numerous missed deadlines. But the goal of Democratic leaders is to pass a health care bill in time for Obama to sign it this year.
Murtha said lawmakers are telling Pelosi not to rush passage.
Underscoring the fire around the issue, Obama was met in Montana by TV and print advertisements from a group called Conservatives for Patients' Rights urging opposition to a new public insurance plan supported by Obama that would compete with private insurers.
The American College of Surgeons also weighed in by criticizing comments Obama made in New Hampshire and at a news conference last month suggesting that doctors might be motivated by profit to amputate a diabetic's foot or remove a child's tonsils.
And Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele issued a statement, saying: "Americans simply aren't buying his efforts to repackage his government-run experiment."
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