Image: Obama
Ed Andrieski  /  AP
President Barack Obama continued his Western states tour in Grand Junction, Colo., Saturday, Aug. 15. He is pushing back calmly but firmly against debunked conservative talking points about his health care overhaul.
updated 8/15/2009 10:06:10 PM ET 2009-08-16T02:06:10

Now, it's personal.

President Barack Obama invoked his own anguish over the death of a loved one as he challenged the debunked notion that Democratic efforts to overhaul the nation's health care would include "death panels."

"I just lost my grandmother last year. I know what it's like to watch somebody you love, who's aging, deteriorate and have to struggle with that," an impassioned Obama told a crowd as he spoke of Madelyn Payne Dunham. He took issue with "the notion that somehow I ran for public office or members of Congress are in this so they can go around pulling the plug on grandma."

"When you start making arguments like that, that's simply dishonest — especially when I hear the arguments coming from members of Congress in the other party who, turns out, sponsored similar provisions," Obama said.

In a debate in which he often sounds professor-like, Obama spoke with a rare bit of emotion that seemed to counter that of vocal health care opponents as he referenced the beloved grandmother who helped raise him and who he called "Toot." She died of cancer at age 86 on Nov. 2, two days before he won election to become the nation's first African-American president.

He talked about her death while answering a question about misinformation being spread about Democratic health care efforts during a town hall-style gathering in a high school gymnasium.

"Health care is really hard. This is not easy. I'm a reasonably dedicated student to this issue. I've got a lot of really smart people around me who've been working on this for months now," he said. "There is no perfect painless silver bullet out there that solves every problem, gives everybody health care for free. There isn't. I wish there was."

Obama addresses debunked claims
But he said that because there's no perfect solution to solving health care, opponents "start saying things like we want to set up death panels to pull the plug on grandma."

Video: Student challenges Obama to debate The president is seeking to put to rest claims that the health care overhaul he seeks would set up "death panels" to rule on life-sustaining care for ailing seniors. It would not, and Obama has stressed that point repeatedly over the past week.

Obama reiterated his contention that the Democratic health care legislation would not create "death panels" to deny care to frail seniors. Obama has explained that the provision that has 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 patient wants it.

Conservatives have called end-of-life counseling in government health care programs like Medicare a step toward euthanasia and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has likened the idea to a bureaucratic "death panel" that would decide whether sick people get to live. Those claims have been widely discredited but the issue remains a political weapon in the increasingly bitter health care debate.

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"I know there's plenty of real concern and skepticism out there," Obama said in his weekly radio and Internet address. "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."

Video: Gregory: Debate has gotten away from Obama Carefully trying 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, Obama asked his audience to "lower our voices, listen to one another and talk about differences that really exist."

In the Republicans' address, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch pressed for a bipartisan solution.

"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.

He said he also encourages a respectful debate, but "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 costs. Critics say proposals in Congress would spend too much and give government too big a role.

Conservative activists and Obama opponents have stepped up their attacks in recent weeks — and may be outmaneuvering a White House known for its organizational abilities.

In campaign mode, Obama is hosting question-and-answer sessions that proved valuable during the presidential race. The Democratic National Committee and Obama's allies are spending millions on advertising campaigns to influence public opinion, much like they did last year. Associates are going out to make the case. The White House is using Internet tools honed during his groundbreaking bid to rally supporters.

Obama is trying to energize his estimated 13 million grass-roots supporters through his campaign apparatus, called Organizing for America. But there are indications that those who turned out in to help elect Obama aren't doing the same to get a policy passed — evidence of the difficulty in the transition from campaigning to governing.

Advisers encourage grass-roots activists
In Pittsburgh, Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett told liberal bloggers Saturday at a conference that the president can't accomplish his goal without them. "I cannot say to you how strongly we depend upon you and your outreach and your network to energize people who are on the ground, not just for health care, but for all the tough issues that are lying ahead," she said.

Earlier in the week, White House senior adviser David Axelrod asked supporters to forward a chain e-mail to counter criticism circulating online. The White House also began a "Reality Check" Web site "to help Americans clear up health care lies and misinformation."

Those efforts were reminiscent of the Obama team's attempts during the 2008 campaign to debunk Internet rumors about his faith and upbringing.

The DNC has created a Web video — "What You Won't See on National Cable News" — to highlight civil town hall meetings, and Obama also plans to speak to backers by telephone during a health care event Wednesday.

Over the past week, he has fielded questions from audiences in New Hampshire, and Montana, as well as in Grand Junction. He has faced polite crowds, a stark contrast to the taunts and jeers that Democratic lawmakers have endured at similar sessions during their August break.

Much like in the campaign, Obama is using people's stories to illustrate his points, railing against interest groups and asking supporters to "rise to this moment."

In Grand Junction, he sounded much like a candidate again as he adapted a campaign theme.

He likened the health care effort to policy fights that led to Social Security and Medicare system. "These struggles have always boiled down to a contest between hope and fear," Obama said — a talking point of his candidacy. "So if you want a different future, if you want a brighter future. I need your help."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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