US President Barack Obama takes to the road on Friday in a bid to quell the torrent of "misinformation" threatening to swamp his healthcare reform drive and damage his political credibility.
Obama will hold town hall meetings in the western states of Montana and Colorado after a series of similar events by lawmakers descended into scenes of outrage spurred by explosive claims by opponents of healthcare reform.
AdvertisementWith his approval ratings taking a battering, Obama is seeking to seize back control of debate on healthcare reform, before lawmakers return to Washington next month after an unusually combative August break.
He opened his counter-offensive in the northeastern state of New Hampshire on Tuesday, and hit out at "scare tactics" adopted by opponents who claim he is bent on a government takeover of private healthcare.
"I think some of you were disappointed yesterday that the President didn't get yelled at," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters on Wednesday when questioned about the placid meeting held by Obama the day before.
Obama is trying to squelch a string of rumors and falsehoods surrounding the healthcare debate, Gibbs said.
"He understands he has a pulpit that is large enough to deal with some of the misinformation that some people might not ordinarily ask or inquire about because they've read it somewhere and they just assume that it's true."
Republicans claim Obama wants to inject the government into private healthcare and build a European-style national health service despite the fact that he has not argued for such a scheme.
They also say his plans are too expensive, will lower healthcare standards, kill off private enterprise and will require new taxes to be brought to fruition.
Defenders of healthcare reform plans are hampered by the fact that they currently have no single piece of legislation to defend: five different approaches are currently working their tortuous way through Congress.
But the White House knows a legislative defeat would deal a devastating political blow to Obama and likely severely curtail his chances of enacting the rest of his hugely ambitious agenda.
Democrats still shudder at the memory of former president Bill Clinton's failed attempt to reform healthcare, which crippled his presidency during the first term and contributed to Republican gains in Congress.
"The President believes these town halls provide an excellent opportunity to explain exactly what his ideas and principles are," Gibbs said.
"More importantly, if he can affect misinformation by telling people what isn't in a piece of legislation, I think he'll take that opportunity."
In recent days, cable news stations have bristled with footage of audience members at town hall meetings screaming at their elected representatives and hurling hysterical claims about the Democratic reform plans.
Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter found himself harangued by a woman in a town hall meeting in his home state on Tuesday, who claimed the state was set to take over private medical care.
"I'm a Republican, it isn't about the health care system, it's about turning the country into Russia, into a socialist country," she said.
The White House, meanwhile, said that the person who daubed a swastika on a sign belonging to a Georgia congressman embroiled in the healthcare debate should be "ashamed."
On Tuesday, Obama himself addressed a remark posted on Facebook by former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, that his healthcare plans would include a "death panel" to ration treatment for end-of-life patients.
He promised no one wanted to "pull the plug on Grandma because we've decided that it's too expensive to let her live anymore."
"Somehow, it has gotten spun into this idea of death panels, I am not in favor of that, I want to clear the air here."
Nine months after Obama mobilized the biggest grass roots movement in US history to sweep to a triumphant presidential election victory, some are questioning whether a counter-movement is under way.
But Gibbs doubted whether scenes of fury being flashed across television screens reflected the true sentiment of Americans towards healthcare reform.
"I doubt we're seeing a representative sample of any series of town hall meetings despite the food fight on cable every day," Gibbs said.
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