MINNEAPOLIS - Thousands of roaring supporters turned out Saturday to rally behind President Barack Obama's call to overhaul the nation's health care system, packing a basketball arena in Minneapolis as Obama warned that nearly half of all Americans under 65 could lose their insurance at some point during the next decade.
Opponents to a health overhaul and big government spending also roared Saturday, as tens of thousands of protesters marched to the Capitol in Washington, showing their disdain with slogans such as "Obamacare makes me sick" and "I'm not your ATM."
The president's rally was the first of a series of presidential events intended to whip up public support for a health overhaul. One of the biggest obstacles the president faces is winning support from middle-class workers who already have insurance, so he is stepping up his warnings that people could lose coverage at any time.
"It can happen to anyone," the president declared.
The White House estimated that 15,000 people attended the rally in Minneapolis; the applause was thunderous when the president bounded onto the stage, shirtsleeves rolled up, as he revived an old campaign rallying cry: "Are you fired up?"
The crowd roared back with another Obama favorite: "Yes we can!"
Obama opened his 40-minute speech with what he called "disturbing news": a report from the Treasury Department that, he said, "found that nearly half of all Americans under 65 will lose their health coverage at some point over the next 10 years" and that "more than one-third will go without coverage for longer than one year."
That is not precisely what the department found when it analyzed data from a University of Michigan survey that tracked the health insurance status of more than 17,000 Americans between 1997 and 2006. The survey found that 47.7 percent had lost coverage at some point during those 10 years for one month or more, and that 36 percent lacked coverage for at least one year during that time, though not necessarily 12 months consecutively. Obama extrapolated those statistics to predict what might happen.
Critics say that the president, who has deplored the "scare tactics" of his opponents, is now employing scare tactics of his own. But Kathleen Sebelius, the nation's health secretary, who also spoke in Minneapolis, said that even one month without insurance was too long, "if that's the month you get sick."
Some in the Minnesota crowd seemed to care less about health statistics than about simply getting a glimpse of the president. Others said they wanted to counter the protests against the president in Washington.
In Washington, the line of protesters clogged several blocks near the Capitol, said the Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency. Demonstrators chanted "enough, enough" and "We the People." Others yelled "You lie, you lie!" and "Pelosi has to go," referring to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
Throngs waved U.S. flags and held signs reading "Go Green Recycle Congress" and "Obama Bin Lyin.'" Men wore Colonial costumes as they listened to speakers who warned of "judgment day" - Election Day 2010.
Other signs - reflecting the growing intensity of the health care debate - depicted Obama with the signature mustache of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler. Many referred to Obama as a socialist or a communist.
Richard Brigle, 57, a Vietnam War veteran and former Teamster, came from Paw Paw, Mich. He said health care needs to be reformed - but not according to Obama's plan. "My grandkids are going to be paying for this. It's going to cost too much money that we don't have," he said.
FreedomWorks Foundation, a conservative organization led by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, organized several groups from across the country for what they billed as a "March on Washington."
Armey and other speakers directed their ire at Pelosi - Armey took a photo, telling the crowd he wanted to be able to prove to her they were there.
"If it's necessary, we'll come back here next year," he said.
Many protesters said they paid their own way to the event - an ethic they believe should be applied to the government. They say unchecked spending on things like a government-run health insurance option could increase inflation and lead to economic ruin.
Terri Hall, 45, of Starke said she felt compelled to become political for the first time this year because she was upset by government spending. "Our government has lost sight of the powers they were granted," she said.
The White House declined to comment on the demonstration, but Democrats said the rally and other protests in recent months represent a small minority of voters and will not slow Obama's proposals.
A black Republican leader denounced African-American politicians who she said had an "affinity" for socialism. "I'm outraged prominent black politicians use the race card" to cover up their failed policies, said Deneen Borelli of New York.
Other sponsors of the event include the Heartland Institute, Americans for Tax Reform and the Ayn Rand Center for Individuals Rights.
Information from the New York Times, Washington Post and Associated Press was used in this report.