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No 'Sister Souljah' moment for Obama at healthcare town hall

August 11, 2009 | 12:17 pm

It must have been music to the president's ears, a spontaneous crowd rendition of "Yes We Can!" from the crowd of 1,800 at Portsmouth High School in New Hampshire. "I remember that," he said with what sounded like a mixture of nostalgia and rue.

For the rest, President Obama's foray into the turmoil that has roiled town hall meetings across the country was a disappointment.

Outside the hall, protesters were loud and insistent. On a church lawn overlooking the high school, they toted signs that said "Hands Off My Healthcare," "Obamacare, It's to Die For," and "Obamacare, Down the Chute Granny."

But inside, questions were, well, polite. With his poll numbers slipping and public skepticism about healthcare reform growing, White House aides had hoped Obama would get a nasty question, like those that have greeted members of Congress on the issue. A tough question would have allowed the president to knock down some of the fears about his healthcare plan -- much as Bill Clinton did in calming voter fears that he was too liberal to be president by distancing himself from hip-hop artist Sister Souljah in 1992.

So, without a good pitch to hit, the president took batting practice -- setting up his own pitches and knocking down some of the myths that have stirred up fear.

On death care: The rumor about "death panels," Obama said, got started because of an amendment in the House bill -- authored by a Republican -- that would have allowed seniors to get Medicare reimbursement for consultations with doctors about end-of-life care like hospice and living wills. They are spreading a rumor, he said, that we want to "pull the plug on Grandma because we decided it's too expensive to let her live anymore."

"I am not in favor of that," Obama said, adding that the underlying argument -- rationing of care -- is at the core of opposition to healthcare reform, a fear that "some bureaucrat ... some bean counter" will decide whether a patient can get a test or procedure.

"I don't believe anyone should be in charge of your healthcare decisions except you and your doctor," he said. "I don't think government bureaucrats should be meddling. But I also don't think insurance company bureaucrats should be meddling."

On costs and taxes: "I won't sign a bill that adds to the deficit or the national debt," he said, belittling Republican critics in Congress who "say with a straight face that we've got to be fiscally responsible" when they supported the cost-heavy prescription drug bill enacted by the Bush administration. Noting that "paying for it is not simple," Obama argued that insurance companies are getting $177 billion a year in overpayments from Medicare that can serve as an important down payment on reform.

On the public option: There's "nothing inevitable" about a government-funded program forcing out private insurers as long as it's self-sustaining, Obama said, adding, "UPS and FedEx are doing just fine. It's the post office that's always having problems."

Finally, on the last question, a man from Derry, N.H., seemed to get Obama's goat when he asked about the new White House website and email address -- flag@whitehouse.gov -- that invites Americans to flag any misinformation circulating on the Internet on healthcare.

Calling it "another example of the media distorting" things, Obama said there is no intention to collect "an enemy's list," only to correct the record. "Come on guys," he said, "we're trying to be responsive to the questions being raised."

Obama has two more town hall appearances this week: On Friday, he does a town hall in Bozeman, Mont., and on Saturday he holds one in Grand Junction, Colo.

Maybe somebody will rail.

-- Johanna Neuman

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