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Public Voices on Obama’s Health Care Address

September 10, 2009 at 6:13 PM EDT
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Spencer Michels gets reactions from the public to President Obama's health care speech.

SPENCER MICHELS, NewsHour correspondent: Last night was the president’s turn to bore in on specifics and talk up his plan for reform. And today, people responded.

Our team of PBS reporters fanned out across the country, from Washington, D.C., to Oklahoma City, San Francisco, and points in between.

I was at a cable car stop in downtown San Francisco this morning.

SAN FRANCISCAN WOMAN: I thought that it was a good speech.

SPENCER MICHELS: Yes? Why? What did you like about it?

SAN FRANCISCAN WOMAN: Well, I liked that he basically asked people or basically told people that, “Enough with the bickering. You know, we have a job to do,” and he’s determined to get it done.

SPENCER MICHELS: What did you especially like about the speech?

SAN FRANCISCAN WOMAN: I liked that he, you know, just delivered a very positive message and very informed in, you know, addressing both parties’ issues.

SPENCER MICHELS: There was also skepticism. We met Bill McHale outside Rochester, New York.

BILL MCHALE, Rochester, N.Y.: I think it was more of the same. I don’t think they’re really addressing the real critical parts of health care. We definitely need some changes, but I think the one big thing that they have not addressed is tort reform.

SPENCER MICHELS: And Fred Hackett in Chicago saw an ominous motive.

FRED HACKETT, Chicago, Ill.: They’re trying to turn the country into a communist country. They’re trying to take over everything in the country. People are going to become prisoners, or, well, they already are.

SPENCER MICHELS: Seniors in the Chicago area were particularly interested in what the president had to say.

BILL DECANIO, Chicago, Ill.: I wasn’t impressed too much. I’m not crazy about the plan. But being a senior citizen, I like what I got, so it’s hard to give it up.

SPENCER MICHELS: In San Francisco as well as in Seattle, we found a good number of people who had not watched the speech, possibly because it aired on the West Coast at 5 p.m.

Excuse me. Did you watch Obama last night on health care?


SPENCER MICHELS: Did you watch Obama last night?

SAN FRANCISCAN WOMAN: I didn’t get a chance.

SPENCER MICHELS: You didn’t get a chance? OK.


Views on the public option

SPENCER MICHELS: Despite the early evening start, many had watched. In fact, nearly 32 million Americans tuned in on television. Some we spoke with were interested in the president's thoughts on the so-called public option.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: But an additional step we can take to keep insurance companies honest is by making a not-for-profit public option available in the insurance exchange.

SPENCER MICHELS: Many of those we spoke to agreed it was important. Deborah Martin was on her way to work in Minneapolis.

DEBORAH MARTIN, Minneapolis, Minn.: I was a little worried that he was going to take off the public approach to it and having...


DEBORAH MARTIN: The public option. I was a little -- because I had been hearing that that's going to be dropped. But I was really inspired to hear that he is planning to go ahead with that.

SPENCER MICHELS: But still others were dubious about the possibility of a government plan.

MIKE CORNER, Washington, D.C.: I haven't changed my position on health care. I'm not for the public option anyway, and haven't been. So I might be seen as more skeptical. I'm no more skeptical than I was. I don't see how it can work as a national plan in the current form that the president's presenting.

The tone of the speech

SPENCER MICHELS: In Oklahoma, insurance agent Jon Gumerson said something must be done, just not what the president outlined.

JON GUMERSON, Guthrie, Okla.: President Obama is a very smooth speaker, and I thought he can be very persuasive. He is a wonderful orator; I'll give him that.

I used to be in the insurance business, and I don't think all those stories about insurance companies are true. But beside the point, I feel that the public option -- I think people would rather not have the government involved in health insurance.

SPENCER MICHELS: As much as people discussed the president's policies, many also talked about the tone of the evening.

BARACK OBAMA: I will not waste time with those who have made the calculation that it's better politics to kill this plan to -- than to improve it.

RACHEL CHAPMAN, Washington, D.C.: I also really liked how he called the Republicans out on a few things. He looked directly at them and said, "This isn't about partisan politics; this is about being an American." And I liked how he wasn't afraid.

AARON LOTT, Washington, D.C.: I thought his tone was a little off a couple times towards Republicans. I understand that he's frustrated, but I did feel like it was a little argumentative some of the times.

Disappointment with "liar" outburst

SPENCER MICHELS: And many were disturbed when South Carolina Republican Joe Wilson interrupted the president.

ERNEST GRAY, Minneapolis, Minn.: I thought it was extremely, extremely unfortunate that we had someone call the president of the United States a lie, a liar. And that type of discourse brings us no closer to what we need to be debating.

SAN FRANCISCAN MAN: I especially liked the one guy that yelled out in the middle of it and called him a liar in the middle of the whole thing.

SPENCER MICHELS: Well, wait a minute. You're giving mixed messages here.

SAN FRANCISCAN MAN: I just thought it was funny, I thought it was funny, because I feel like they've been lying the whole time in trying to make his plan seem like everybody's going to help illegal aliens and make it all sound like it's nonsense and...

SPENCER MICHELS: Michael MacDonald is a retired professor. We spoke to him in Seattle.

MICHAEL MACDONALD, Seattle, Wash.: We just don't do that in our country. That's more British. And I like the Brits, but the way they do things is a little different.

SPENCER MICHELS: Michael Stepniak is from Australia originally and is a permanent legal resident of the U.S., living in Washington. He's seen that political sparring before.

MICHAEL STEPNIAK, Washington, D.C.: Being from a commonwealth country, I'm used to parliament being very raucous and noisy. So the interruptions, you know, the "It's a lie!" shout, I don't think turned me off as much as I think it probably turns other people off.

SPENCER MICHELS: Beyond the shouting, Dr. Webb Martin in Boise, Idaho, saw a more fundamental problem.

DR. WEBB MARTIN, Boise, Idaho: Does the American public look at things rationally? I'm sorry; I don't always believe they do. It is such an emotional issue. You saw it at town hall meetings that people aren't thinking from a rational standpoint.

SPENCER MICHELS: The point and counterpart will continue to be debated around the country, but now that Congress is back in session, the focus will shift back to Capitol Hill.