Obama's Health Care Push Faces Citizens' Mounting Concern Over Deficit
Across the Country, People Are Wondering How to Pay for New Reform
By JAKE TAPPER and HUMA KHAN
Aug. 12, 2009
With mounting criticism of the Democrats' push for health care overhaul, President Barack Obama is trying to regain the momentum.
Yet, regaining the momentum may become increasingly difficult in light of the soaring federal deficit, which increased by $180 billion in July alone. At a record $1.27 trillion, the deficit is heading toward $2 trillion by the end of the fiscal year. Citizens at town hall meetings are expressing concern over the government's ability to pay for health care reform without adding to the deficit.
"The initial cost is over a trillion dollars for a down payment. Who is going to pay for this bill?" a woman shouted at Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., at a town hall meeting in Lebanon, Pa., yesterday. "My children and my grandchildren are going to pay for this bill."
Supporters of the president's health care reform push point out that spiraling health care costs in Medicare and Medicaid are a huge part of the deficit problem, and reform is necessary to tackle the issue.
"Health care reform that brings down the growth rate of health care costs will help our children and grandchildren in affording health care and having less debt," said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., at a town hall in Hagerstown, Md., today.
"I happen to agree very strongly with frustration related to the deficits," Cardin said. "I believe very strongly that we have to balance the federal budget. I voted to balance the federal budget, and that's why I have said -- and I'll repeat now for the fourth time; you wanna keep asking the question, fine -- I won't vote for a bill that will increase the deficit."
But skeptics say Congress so far has avoided making tough decisions over how to foot the bill.
"From what we're seeing so far, it doesn't look like they're tackling the real cost drivers of health care. And that means if they don't do it, it will make the deficit situation worse," said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition.
"One of the things I worry about is whether Congress is up to making hard choices that would bring health care costs under control. It's not going to be easy to do, and Congress likes to take the path of least resistance," added Bixby.
The president has attempted to address citizens' concerns over a growing deficit.
"First of all, I said I won't sign a bill that adds to the deficit or the national debt. OK? So this will have to be paid for," he said Wednesday during a health care forum in Portsmouth, N.H.
Town Hall Showdown
Obama has scheduled three town hall meetings for this week alone, in which he will attempt to rebut criticism of his proposals while also explaining what the 202 million Americans who have private insurance stand to gain from his plan.
"Let's disagree over things that are real, not these wild misrepresentations that bear no resemblance," the president told a crowd of about 1,800 at a town hall Tuesday in Portsmouth, N.H. "Every time we come close to passing health insurance reform, the special interests fight back with everything they've got."
In trying to distinguish fact from fury -- though the president has made some misstatements of his own -- Obama has raised the stakes in this struggle and, analysts say, the White House is in for a tough fight.
"I think that the beginning of it, they did it well ... but they let the message get out of control," said ABC News consultant and former Bush administration strategist Matthew Dowd. "Opponents have seized on that and have been able to sort of push back and actually move poll numbers that started out in support of this bill, and now moved against it.
"I think the White House is trying its best to regrab hold of the message and try to resell this thing to the American public," Dowd told "Good Morning America."
In city after city, Democrats are encountering angry, and in some cases, raucous crowds.
In State College, Pa., Specter faced a jeering crowd, although it dimmed next to the town hall showdown on Tuesday, where even the extra police couldn't stop the raging crowd, some of whom hurled allegations that Specter was not abiding by the Constitution and not representing their interests.
"You have awakened a sleeping giant," one town hall attendee told Specter. "We are tired of this. This is why everybody in this room is so ticked off. I don't want this country turning into Russia, turning into a socialized country."
Photo: Health Care: Town Hall Troubles for Democrats As Obama Heads to New Hampshire: Health Care Debate Heats Up as Both Sides Gain Momentum
President Barack Obama talks about his health care plan Aug. 11, 2009, at Portsmouth High School in Portsmouth, N.H.
(Jim Cole/AP Photo)
In Missouri, a visibly frustrated Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., was greeted Tuesday by a heckling crowd that loudly chanted, "No," when she asked if they trusted her.
Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., cancelled his speech at a middle school Friday after rumors spread that it would be a public forum on health care. His fellow congressman, Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., faced a rowdy audience at a town hall meeting Saturday and was met with loud boos.
For some, it has become even more extreme. A swastika was painted outside Rep. David Scott's Georgia office, and the Democrat believes it has everything to do with the heated health care debate that arose at a town hall meeting he organized Aug. 1.
Rep. Dennis Moore, D-Kan., said he cancelled some health care town halls because he received two death threats.
"I'm kind of disinclined to hold town hall meetings if people are going to be angry and belligerent," Moore told ABC's radio affiliate KMBZ. "If people are going to be civil and respectful, I'm all for having those conversations. But public safety has to be a concern."
The president Tuesday addressed some of the dynamics playing out in the debate.
"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 boogeymen out there that just aren't real," Obama told the crowd in Portsmouth, which seemingly was full of his supporters, unlike the protestors outside.
The White House insisted that none of the attendees were pre-screened. Some attendees told ABC News they got their tickets through their local lawmakers or through a White House lottery at whitehouse.gov.
Obama's message Tuesday was targeted to a slightly different audience than his previous addresses. Instead of talking about the uninsured, the president focused more on what the elderly and the insured would get out of his plan. But in trying to curb concerns, he also didn't hold back in criticizing his opponents.
He pushed back against the false charge -- first raised by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin -- that health care reform proposals would create a "death panel" to ration care, killing seniors.
"The irony is that, actually, one of the chief sponsors of this bill originally was a Republican ... who very sensibly thought this is something that would expand people's options," the president told a crowd filled with senior citizens. "The intention of the members of Congress was to give people more information, so that they could handle issues of end-of-life care, when they're ready, on their own terms. It wasn't forcing anybody to do anything. This is, I guess, where the rumor came from."
But the president made misstatements of his own. He touted an endorsement for health care overhaul legislation by the AARP, though the organization countered that claim, saying it has not yet endorsed any bills on the table in Congress.
Gaining the support of seniors could be an important tool in getting back the original message.
"If you lose seniors, you lose the health care debate," Dowd told "GMA."
The president is expected to continue his fact checking mission in more town hall meetings this week, but whether that calms the frenzy remains to be seen.
Dowd said the administration, rather than getting entangled into the heated debate, needs to focus on what the public wants to hear.
"They have to quickly correct the misstatements but they gotta get back on the big broader message that the public buys into," he said.
ABC News' Rachel Martin contributed to this report.
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