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Muted Reaction To Obama Health Care Town Hall

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

There was another town hall meeting on health care yesterday, the kind that lawmakers have been holding around the country, sometimes with noisy disruptions. But this one in Portsmouth, New Hampshire had a bit higher profile: It was hosted by the president of the United States. There were noisy demonstrations outside, but inside, the tone was civilized, as NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA: Health care has been the hot topic of debate in August, and there was plenty of noise yesterday in Portsmouth. But it was all on the sidewalk outside the president's town hall.

Unidentified Group: Just say no. Just say no.

GONYEA: Jeremy Olsen(ph) was there. He says the government should not be a health care provider. He held up a sign portraying the U.S. House bill as a version of the children's board game "Chutes and Ladders."

Mr. JEREMY OLSEN: It's shows you all the bureaucracies and middle men that are going to be involved and making it look like the "Chutes and Ladders" game because it's so complicated. You know, you have to go here then down here then over and up and around just to try to actually get health care is what it's trying to say.

GONYEA: Others were harsher in their criticism. There was a giant poster of President Obama as Adolf Hitler. Another sign called the president Obamadinejad. But the opposition was matched in size and spirit by health care reform backers.

Unidentified Group: (unintelligible) too late, people die while we wait.

GONYEA: One sign said the cost of the Iraq War could have paid for health care reform. Others said health care is a right.

The protestors didn't have tickets to the event, most of which were distributed through a White House Web page. The White House says seats were awarded randomly. On stage, the president said there's a lot of misinformation out there on the issue, including that he wants government panels to review whether the elderly will be allowed treatment.

President BARACK OBAMA: The rumor that's been circulating a lot lately is this idea that somehow the House of Representatives voted for death panels that will basically pull the plug on grandma because we've decided that we don't - it's too expensive to let her live anymore.

GONYEA: The president said it's all an attempt to derail efforts to fix a problem.

Pres. OBAMA: Because the way politics work sometimes is that people who want to keep things the way they are will try to scare the heck out of folks, and they'll create boogeymen out there that just aren't real.

GONYEA: The crowd inside was overwhelmingly supportive of Mr. Obama, greeting him with cheers and a standing ovation. Twice, the president actively sought out questions from skeptics, looking around the room for people who disagreed with him.

Pres. OBAMA: Because I don't want people thinking I just have a bunch of plants in here.

GONYEA: He found a few, but even those exchanges were very mild.

Mr. BEN HERSCHENSOHN(ph): My name is Ben Herschensohn. I'm from Ogunquit, Maine and also Bonita Springs, Florida, and I'm a Republican. I don't know what I'm doing here, but I'm here.

Pres. OBAMA: We're happy to have you.

(Soundbite of applause)

Pres. OBAMA: We're happy to have you.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. HERSCHENSOHN: Mr. President, you've been quoted over the years when you were a senator and perhaps even before then that you were essentially a supporter of a universal plan.

GONYEA: The president answered that he has not supported what's known as a government single-payer system.

Pres. OBAMA: And for us to transition to a system like that, I believe, would be too disruptive. So, what would end up happening would be a lot of people who currently have employer-based health care would suddenly find themselves dropped and they would have to go into an entirely new system that we had not been fully set up yet, and I would be concerned about the potential destructiveness of that kind of transition.

GONYEA: The White House seemed content with the contrast between this health care town hall and the more contentious ones that have taken place around the country, including a shout-filled event hosted by Senator Arlen Specter in Lebanon, Pennsylvania yesterday. A spokesman for Mr. Obama said the New Hampshire event demonstrates the kind of civil dialogue the president has been having at town halls all year, adding that it's an opportunity for people to get questions answered and to learn from each other.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Don Gonyea
You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.