PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — Assailing "wild misrepresentations" of his health care plan, President Barack Obama came looking for a confrontation. But nobody wanted to fight.
The "town hall" Obama addressed at a local high school on Tuesday was a polite affair.
Not so for other Democratic lawmakers defending health care reform proposals, who faced the gamut of jeers and taunts at hot-tempered gatherings.
Pennsylvania Republican-turned-Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter had to listen to speaker after speaker accuse him of trampling on their rights. A Georgia lawmaker said a swastika was spray-painted at his office. And in Hillsboro, Mo., a frustrated Sen. Claire McCaskill admonished a rowdy crowd at a town hall.
Outside the Obama event, tempers rose as fans and foes of his proposals exchanged views.
"Parasites!" yelled the protesters on the right side of the school driveway.
"Ignorants!" yelled the protesters on the left.
There appeared to be about 2,000 people outside the school, roughly evenly split. "Euthanize Obama!" yelled one protester from the right side of the driveway at Tom Jordan, a social studies teacher from Amesbury, Mass., who stood with the president's supporters and held up a "Euthanize Ignorance: Go Obama" sign.
While apparently failing to convert the people outside who protested from the right side of the driveway, Obama sought to reassure the people gathered inside that health care reform does not mean Americans will lose coverage or surrender treatment decisions to the government.
"Where we do disagree, let's disagree over things that are real, not these wild misrepresentations that bear no resemblance to anything that has actually been proposed," Obama told the meeting, attended by about 1,800 people. "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 boogeymen."
He pointed out that the Democratic health care legislation would not create "death panels" to deny care to frail seniors — or "basically pull the plug on grandma because we decided that it's too expensive to let her live anymore," as Obama put it. The provision that led to such talk would only authorize Medicare to pay doctors for counseling patients about end-of-life care if they want it, he said.
Unlike many of Obama's town hall style meetings, usually filled to the rafters with supporters, Tuesday's meeting included skeptics from whom he sought out questions.
There were plenty who responded. A schoolteacher from Portsmouth asked where the country was going to get the doctors and nurses to attend to all the newly insured people who would be seeking treatment. A man who identified himself as Bill Anderson, said Medicare tried to force him to take a generic substitute for Lipitor, the anticholesterol drug, which did not agree with him, before allowing him to return to the name-brand drug. Ben Hershenson, a self-described Republican — "I don't know what I'm doing here" — fretted that a government-run public option would kill private insurance companies.
Obama said that health reform would free doctors to concentrate on treatment because they would not be prodded to schedule unnecessary tests. He said Medicare's decision to allow Anderson to return to Lipitor showed that the system worked.
And he said that a government-run public option should not kill private insurers, but rather force them to be more competitive, even going so far as to compare the competition between them to Federal Express, UPS and the post office. "UPS and FedEx are doing just fine," Obama joked. "It's the post office that's always having problems."
Democrats bear brunt
At a crowded community college in Lebanon, Pa., Specter heard from speakers who accused him of trampling on their constitutional rights, adding to the federal deficit or allowing government bureaucrats to take over health care.
One woman tried to make it personal for Specter, alleging that the Democrats' plan would not provide care to a man in his 70s with cancer, like Specter had.
"You're here because of the plan we have now," she said.
Specter, 79, who has battled cancer twice since 2005, showed some heat at that.
"Well, you're just not right," he said. He called her claim a "vicious, malicious" rumor.
In Georgia, Democratic Rep. David Scott's staff arrived at his Smyrna, Ga., office on Tuesday morning to find a large, black swastika spray-painted on a sign out front bearing his name. Scott, who is black, said he also has received mail in recent days that used N-word references to him and that characterized Obama as a Marxist.
"We have got to make sure that the symbol of the swastika does not win, that the racial hatred that's bubbling up does not win this debate," Scott said in a telephone interview.
In Hillsboro, Mo., a rowdy crowd of about 1,500 peppered McCaskill with questions about health care for veterans, seniors and illegal immigrants and provisions funding abortions. One man was arrested after allegedly ripping a sign from a woman that showed a picture of Rosa Parks sitting on a bus and read, "First Lady of Civil Rights."
"I don't understand this rudeness," McCaskill told the crowd at one point. "I honestly don't get it."