Tuesday, August 11, 2009
President Obama defended his health care overhaul Tuesday at a town hall-style meeting in New Hampshire, saying he didn't think government bureaucrats — or insurance company executives — should be meddling in health care decisions involving patients and doctors.
"Your health insurance will be there for you when it counts, not just when you're paying premiums," Obama said to audience applause at a high school in the seacoast town of Portsmouth.
The president recently embarked on a series of town halls to regain the momentum on his top domestic priority, and weeks of noisy and angry town halls has intensified pressure on Obama and Democrats.
"After all the chatter and shouting and the noise," Americans will soon have more and cheaper options for health care, Obama said Tuesday.
Supporters and protesters gathered in advance of the Portsmouth meeting, forcing police to call in reinforcements to provide security.
"They started to come in early this morning before commuting time," said City Attorney Robert Sullivan. "We're expecting thousands, and we're a small city."
The local newspaper showed photographs of protesters holding signs reading, "Sick of Obama" and "Hands Off Our Health Care," as they lined up along the road Obama's motorcade took en route to Portsmouth High School.
"I'm here because I'm an American, I believe in free speech and I'm scared to death," said Barbara Taylor, 65, of Exeter, N.H. She arrived at 7:30 a.m. and was soaking wet from a severe downpour earlier in the morning. The rain had blurred the red ink on the sign Taylor carried: "Hands Off Our Health Care."
On the other side of the road, Linda McVay held her own sign calling attention to Americans without health insurance. She said her son has been without insurance since losing his job in November.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama was prepared for possible disruptions at the meeting.
"I think what the president will do is turn to that person and probably ask them to be civilized and give them an answer to their question," Gibbs said on CBS' The Early Show.
Sullivan said Portsmouth residents are both honored and burdened by the presidential visit, as there was little time for city officials to plan for security, parking and public safety issues. "Our entire police department is stretched to the limit," he said. "The security concerns are substantial," as officials balance their First Amendment obligations with safety concerns.
The anticipated crowds were so big that the Portsmouth Police Department had to ask surrounding communities for help, extending the call for assistance across the border to Kittery, Maine, Sullivan said.
About 1,800 people were expected for the event. Of those, 70 percent were given tickets based on a random lottery — a potentially dicey crowd in a state known for its grass-roots political activism.
"Participating in government here in New Hampshire is like putting on socks for the average American," said Ray Buckley, chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party.
Republicans say the heated debate is a sign of widespread public dissatisfaction with Obama's ideas. But with some of the anxieties spilling into angry disruptions and even threats, Democrats have accused Republicans of orchestrating the events to sabotage legislation. In an article published Monday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer wrote, "Drowning out opposing views is simply un-American."
Obama also plans to address the public at meetings in Colorado and Montanta later in the week.
From NPR's Deborah Tedford and wire service reports.