JIM LEHRER: President Obama tried to build new support for his health care plan today, and he charged opponents are trying to scare people. The president got a friendly reception at a town hall meeting in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
Jeffrey Brown has our lead story report.
JEFFREY BROWN: This was Mr. Obama’s first foray into New Hampshire as president, and he made clear he was ready to go on the offensive in what has become a rancorous national conversation on health care.
U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Let’s disagree over things that are real, not these wild misrepresentations that bear no resemblance to anything that’s actually been proposed.
Because the way politics works 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 bogeyman out there that just aren’t real.
Now’s the hard part, because the history is clear. Every time we come close to passing health insurance reform, the special interests fight back with everything they’ve got. They use their influence. They use their political allies to scare and mislead the American people. They start running ads. This is what they always do. We can’t let them do it again, not this time, not now.
JEFFREY BROWN: While pushing his plan to expand coverage to the uninsured, the president today repeatedly sought to address the vast majority of Americans who already have insurance and worry about what change might bring, and he came down hard on insurance companies.
U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Now, let me just start by setting the record straight on a few things I’ve been hearing out here about reform. Under the reform we’re proposing, if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor. If you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan.
You will not be waiting in any lines. This is not about putting the government in charge of your health insurance. I don’t believe anyone should be in charge of your health insurance decisions but you and your doctor.
I don’t think government bureaucrats should be meddling, but I also don’t think insurance company bureaucrats should be meddling.
That’s the health care system I believe in.
JEFFREY BROWN: The president spoke to and took questions from a cordial crowd of 1,800, most of whom applied for tickets online. At one point, he had to ask for questions from those who don’t like his plan.
BARACK OBAMA: Somebody here who has a concern about health care that has not been raised or is skeptical and suspicious…
JEFFREY BROWN: Outside the high school where the meeting took place, the debate that’s been growing around the country recently was more on display, its supporters chanting and opponents showing their ire.
PROTESTOR: And I earn my health insurance. I pay for it with my money that I work very hard for.
PROTESTOR: You’re paying for it, so I hope you’re happy, because he’s enjoying your tax money…
JEFFREY BROWN: Republican State Representative Shaun Doherty was on hand, too, armed with his own flow chart. He said it depicts the bureaucracy the president’s plan would create.
SHAUN DOHERTY, state representative: I just came out here to express my opposition to the current health care reform plan that the president is proposing. I support reforming health care, but this is not the reform that I support. And I think that it creates a giant bureaucracy and it would actually harm our health care system, not help it.
JEFFREY BROWN: That opposition has become increasingly loud and combative as members of Congress meet with constituents in their home districts, as today with Democratic Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.
PROTESTOR: One day, God’s going to stand before you, and he’s going to judge you and the rest of your damn cronies up on the Hill!
And then you will get your just desserts. I’m leaving.
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER, D-Penn.: OK, OK, OK, we’ve just — we’ve just had a — we’ve just had a demonstration of democracy.
AD NARRATOR: President Obama’s plan will end unfair insurance…
Democrats Answer Opposition
JEFFREY BROWN: With the president fighting back, the Democratic National Committee has just launched an ad called "Something In It For All of Us."
AD NARRATOR: Health insurance reform means your family's care comes first, not insurance industry profits. Call Congress. Tell them, when it comes to health insurance reform, there's something in it for all of us.
BARACK OBAMA: But I'm going to need your help, New Hampshire. Thank you very much, everybody.
JEFFREY BROWN: The ad is running on cable in New Hampshire, Colorado, and Montana, the states where the president is selling his plan this week, trying to reverse growing dissatisfaction over health care reform that showed up in polls of his own popularity.
And joining us now from around the country to talk about the president and the public debate over health reform, two editorial page editors, Nolan Finley of the Detroit News and John Diaz of the San Francisco Chronicle, and two columnists, Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Robert Robb of the Arizona Republic.
Well, John Diaz, we have the president pushing back today. What do you see going on? Has he lost ground on health care?
JOHN DIAZ, San Francisco Chronicle: He has lost some ground, Jeff. And the thing that I would say is what the president was trying to do today -- very wisely, in my opinion -- is reshape this debate, because although we are talking about somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 million people who don't have insurance in this country, the fact remains that the vast majority of Americans do have coverage.
And that's really the audience that he was going after today, because the thing that the president has to persuade them, if this is going to succeed, is that they have a stake in it. And I think there is a good case that they do when we look at things like cost-shifting and things like whether they have the coverage they think they have.
JEFFREY BROWN: Robert Robb, what do you see?
ROBERT ROBB, Arizona Republic: I think the president's ground has shifted dramatically against him and it's beyond the issue of health care. Certainly, as we come closer to reform, people have understandable anxiety about what it means to them.
But I also think there's a growing sense in the country that the federal government is overstretched. It's taken on too much. It's too much in debt. And now's not the time to be accumulating additional large obligations. And I think that's created a headwind, in addition to concerns about the issue itself.
Opponents Build Momentum
JEFFREY BROWN: Cynthia Tucker, we heard the president say, "Now's the hard part." What do you see? Is a headwind against him, or is this a healthy debate, or what?
CYNTHIA TUCKER, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Now is the hard part. The president was elected with promises of health care reform. In fact, he would probably argue he had a mandate to reform health care, and I don't think that that would be an exaggeration.
But as always happens in this debate, once you start legislation moving through Congress, the opponents have mobilized, and they have mobilized not just with legitimate criticisms -- because there are certainly those, costs being one -- but also with all sorts of misrepresentations, distortions, and outright lies.
And the president and Democrats in Congress lost control of the debate. They understand that. The opponents had time to build up momentum. You've seen these angry town hall meetings. So the president is trying very hard now to regain the momentum.
JEFFREY BROWN: And, Nolan Finley, you've had some of these town hall meetings where you are. What do you see going on? What do you see going on with the president today?
NOLAN FINLEY, Detroit News: Well, we had one of the angriest town hall meetings, John Dingell had in Ypsilanti the other night. Unfortunately, this is all taken on the element of a political campaign, complete with attack ads, misinformation campaigns, partisan talking points. That's the wrong way to do legislation this life-changing.
These bills were written from the left and are now trying to be pulled to the middle. Congress needs to go back after this recess, start from the middle, get bipartisan support, and deliver a bill that doesn't scare the heck out of the American people.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Nolan, staying with you, do you see what's going on, the confusion all the way to anger? Is that from a kind of confusion over the parts -- the specific parts of the reform package? Or is it more generally in the air, as I think Robert Robb was suggesting?
NOLAN FINLEY: Well, I think -- and I think he's right, but I think you've seen elements of both. This is a very complex bill. People don't understand it.
Michigan is a very good example. We have some of the best employer-offered health insurance in the nation, but you also have a lot of people being washed out of insurance because of layoffs, so you have people fearing that they're going to lose their very good insurance and people afraid that they won't have any insurance.
So people are afraid. They have very legitimate concerns about the scope and size of the bill. And they've reached their tolerance level for government spending and government expansion.
JEFFREY BROWN: But, John Diaz, to look at the issues a little substantively, pieces of it, what have you focused on in your writing? Or what have people been most interested in, pro and con?
JOHN DIAZ: I think a couple things have come to the fore just in the past week. I think one of the things that we've been concerned about as an editorial page -- although we generally have been very supportive of the idea of health care reform -- is the secret deal that Barack Obama's administration made with the pharmaceutical industry, where the drug-makers basically made in a deal with the White House that they would hold their cost savings at somewhere around $80 billion.
Now, that sounds like a lot of money to you and me, and most of us would have no idea whether that's really a reasonable savings to get over the next decade, but you can bet the drug-makers knew. And I think that's been a concern.
I would say, more than anything else, Jeff, the issue is the potential cost of this. You know, we're talking about a trillion dollars over 10 years. So there's some concern there.
Bipartisan Concern Over Bill
JEFFREY BROWN: And, Robert Robb, how does that jibe with what you hear from readers or from what you're focusing on in your editorial page?
ROBERT ROBB: I think there's two different points of concern and dispute. Among Republicans -- and, to a large extent, independents -- it's a concern that the federal government is simply overreaching at a time that the country cannot afford it.
Within the Democratic Party, I think there's an internal debate over the cost of the program, with Blue Dog Democrats being concerned about that and how it's financed, and over whether there's a public option, because many on the left of the Democratic Party feel that health care reform isn't worth it if there is not a public option. And I think Blue Dogs and independents are concerned about government getting that directly involved in the delivery of health care.
JEFFREY BROWN: Cynthia, you're saying that this is what Barack Obama was elected to do.
CYNTHIA TUCKER: Absolutely. This is absolutely what he was elected to do. And one of the most interesting things about the opponents who say that they don't want government more involved in health care is that many of the critics saying that are Medicare recipients.
Medicare is a government-run, old-fashioned, Canadian-like, single-payer system. And so to listen to some of the critics at town hall meetings be very angry, "I don't want a government hand in health care," when, in fact, they're Medicare recipients lets you know that some of the fears are illegitimate fears.
Am I hearing about a public option from some readers? Absolutely. I think it is legitimate to wonder, in an era where there is very little competition state by state among insurance carriers, whether we'd have the reform we're looking for without a public option.
I think it's also fair to say -- John Diaz was absolutely right about the behind-the-scenes deal with pharmaceutical companies. I think that that is a huge disappointment among many who are concerned about cost control.
But I also think we need to keep an eye on the amount of money insurers are pouring in to Congress, particularly the Blue Dog Democrats, to keep them from putting a public option in place. They don't want real competition.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, and Nolan Finley, in fact, we heard today again the president sort of pushing back especially on the insurers, making that part of the debate now. What jumps out at you, in terms of the specific pieces of the reform package?
NOLAN FINLEY: Well, I think the public option is the deal-breaker. And you heard the president make promises today that he can't keep. He can't promise people that they won't lose their private insurance. If your employer decides to get out of the insurance-providing business, you're dumped on the government.
He can't talk with any certainty about what this bill is going to look like, because it's not his bill. It's being written in Congress.
I think -- I heard Cynthia mention that Medicare and that the people raising these concerns are Medicare recipients. Exactly. They see a program run by the government that is hurtling toward disaster and Congress doing nothing to address the problems with Medicare or Social Security. And now you're asking people to trust that they can do a better job with the overall health care system?
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, John Diaz, I mean, that sort of puts it on the table here. Are we getting to a point where this is about trust, about whether he's making promises he can or cannot keep? Is that where we're heading, rather than to the substance or the component parts of the reform package?
Obama Should Address Public Option
JOHN DIAZ: I think it's very incumbent on the president to get the debate back to the substance and to take on this issue of the public option, because, let's face it, if you mandate that Americans buy insurance either through their employers or themselves and you don't have any kind of safety valve, that just may be a giant profit center for the insurance companies.
The public option would ensure that you would have the counterbalance of not only the option of insurance that does take this as a reason to gouge, but also to get some of the leverage of buying power on things like prescription drugs that the government can buy on a volume that can help hold medical costs down.
JEFFREY BROWN: Robert Robb, I just want to come back to something you said earlier, that a lot of this is tied, you think, to still the uncertainty over the economy and the jobs situation.
ROBERT ROBB: It's that, but I think it's more a concern about the reaction of the federal government to the economy, the sense that the federal government has taken on huge obligations with no plan in place to finance them, huge debt without any plan in place to reduce it.
So I think that there is a broad and growing sense that the federal government is overstretched and that this is simply not a time for the federal government to be taking on massive new obligations.
And that's sort of the underlying sentiment that's driving the extent of concern, the passion that you're seeing beyond simply the specifics of the health care debate.
JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think about that, Cynthia, that that is sort of overwhelming the specifics of the health care debate?
CYNTHIA TUCKER: I do think that there's a general unease out there, but I would describe it differently. I don't think it's about the federal government being overstretched. I think that there is a sense of unease because the economy is so bad.
President Obama cautioned way back in January and February that the economy would recover very slowly, but I don't think that people expected that even now unemployment would be inching toward 10 percent. That doesn't make people very trusting; it doesn't make them very confident about anything; and it certainly doesn't increase their level of trust in the Obama administration.
So I do think that there is a free-floating anxiety out there attached to the economy at the moment.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Nolan Finley, it's August. It's supposed to be a quiet month for all of us, at the beach or otherwise, and yet we have this huge public debate. How much do you see -- when you look forward now to September, does the public rancor of August really have an impact on members of Congress and the national debate in September?
NOLAN FINLEY: Oh, absolutely. I think it will reshape the debate when they come back to Congress after the recess. I believe this thing will have to move toward the middle.
You've had voters out there watching a lot of money be spent this year, $800 billion stimulus plan, an equal amount for banks and the credit markets, tens of billions for automakers, and people haven't yet seen it pay off in a bettering of their individual condition.
Congress is going to have to go back in September and craft a bill that they can sell to the American people as being good for them, as a bill that will work to make things better in their individual lives.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right. We will leave it there. Nolan Finley, John Diaz, Robert Robb, and Cynthia Tucker, thank you, all four.
JIM LEHRER: On our Web site, you can find reports from local PBS stations about the health care debate, including New Hampshire Public Television, which covered the president's town hall meeting today.