Obama Braces for Health Care Town Hall in N.H.

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama is altering his message on his overhaul of the U.S. health care system, readying a fresh pitch designed for those who already have insurance.

The White House is retooling its message amid polling that shows Americans -- especially those who already have coverage -- skeptical of the Democratic proposals to expand coverage to millions. Instead, Obama will use a potentially boisterous town hall-style meeting in New Hampshire to highlight how his proposals would affect workers whose employers provide their health insurance.

The shift also is a potential blueprint for lawmakers' August recess. Critics of the president's plan have grabbed headlines by disrupting town hall meetings, and the White House expects that Tuesday's event may be bumpy.

Obama is prepared for possible disruptions, said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.

"I think what the president will do is turn to that person and probably ask them to be civilized and give them an answer to their question," Gibbs said Tuesday on CBS' "The Early Show." 

The town hall tradition is to give people information, he said, "so they can make a decision about policy that impacts their lives and I think that's what this town hall meeting will do today and I know the president is excited about engaging the public again."

Concerns over Obama's proposal are heating up meetings, chat rooms and radio shows, driving his poll numbers down and threatening the future of his top domestic priority. While Congress is in recess for the month of August, lawmakers are hearing from constituents worried about divisive issues such as the government's role in health care and the costs of an overhaul.

"There's a lot of fear out there," said Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, a New Hampshire Democrat.
To calm that fear, Obama plans to spend the month highlighting the upside of health overhaul for Americans already with insurance, starting in a state with 89 percent of its residents enjoying health coverage.

In Portsmouth, N.H., Obama will speak directly about his proposal to ban insurance companies from denying individuals coverage because of pre-existing conditions. During a Friday trip to Montana, he will talk about how his plan would block companies from dropping an individual's coverage if he or she becomes ill. And in Colorado the president will talk about how the Democrats' plan would end high out-of-pocket costs in some policies.

His allied Democratic National Committee began running television advertising that asks, "What's in it for you?" and then highlights those goals. Officials said the ad started running Monday night in Washington and on cable; it would follow as early as Tuesday in states Obama planned to visit, including New Hampshire.

About 1,800 people are expected for that midday event in the Democratic-leaning Seacoast region of the Granite State. Of those, 70 percent were given tickets based on a random lottery -- a potentially dicey crowd in a state known for its grass-roots political activism.

"Participating in government here in New Hampshire is like putting on socks for the average American," said Ray Buckley, the chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party.

Outside, a dozen grass-roots organizations plan a counter rally.

"We are against the blind-faith, fast-tracking approach being advocated by special-interest supporters of the bill, congressional representatives, as well as the president," said George Lovejoy, a former state senator and chairman of the New Hampshire Advantage Coalition.

In an e-mail to Obama supporters in New Hampshire, an aide invited supporters to counter the counter-protesters and called them organized by "Washington insiders, insurance companies and well-financed special interests who don't go a day without spreading lies and stirring up fear."

Republicans say the heated debate is a sign of widespread public dissatisfaction with Obama's ideas. But with some of the anxieties spilling into angry disruptions and even threats, Democrats have accused Republicans of orchestrating the events to sabotage legislation. In an article published Monday, House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer wrote: "Drowning out opposing views is simply un-American."

Obama and his aides stayed away from such provocative language.

"We are having a vigorous debate in the United States, and I think that's a healthy thing," Obama said, repeating that thought three times. But, he said, the dynamic will change once the recess ends and the lawmakers -- and the debate -- return to Washington.

Aboard Air Force One, White House spokesman Bill Burton further sought to distance Obama from the "un-American" comment: "Well, I think there's actually a pretty long tradition of people shouting at politicians in America."

Meanwhile, the White House returned to campaign mode, starting with sending members of the Cabinet to key states. The tech-savvy Obama team directly responded to what it considers misinformation through its Twitter and Facebook accounts online, as well as a new page of the White House's Web site.

Organizing for America, Obama's political operation, also urged supporters to visit the offices of members of Congress to express their support for overhaul.