President Barack Obama, appearing genuinely pleased to be back in the Big Sky state, talked health care Friday with an enthusiastic crowd at a Bozeman airport hanger, fielding a variety of questions from local residents and stressing the importance of creating a system that protects consumers from insurance company abuses.
“TV loves a ruckus,” Obama said, in reference to the combative town hall meetings that have played out on cable news in recent weeks. “But what you haven’t seen are the many constructive meetings going on across the country, people coming together to have a constructive discussion and asks questions. That reflects a lot more than what we’re seeing on TV.”
The Bozeman Town Hall meeting focused especially on curbing insurance company practices such as finding excuses to cut people off when they get sick, denying coverage for pre-existing conditions, or imposing caps on total benefits. Under the reform proposals being discussed, those practices would be prohibited, Obama said.
Obama asserted that there was agreement on about 80% of the components of a health care reform package, and referred multiple times to the work that Sen. Max Baucus – seated on the stage along with Sen. Jon Tester and Governor Brian Schweitzer – was doing on the legislation. Baucus has come under fire from Democrats on the left for what they consider an overly compromising approach to the issue, but he received clear support from Obama on Friday.
There were no confrontations or disruptions among the crowd of about 1,300, with the great majority appearing to be strong supporters of the president. Displaying his extraordinary rhetorical skills and lucid grasp of the issues, Obama repeatedly drew applause from the crowd as he urged people to reject scare tactics, “fight against the fear,” and to – drawing a note from his campaign – join him in changing the system.
Demonstrators, including opponents of health care reform, opponents of Obama in general, and supporters of a “single-payer” health care system, were camped out at the airport entrance, a good half-mile from the airport hanger. It was difficult to judge the scale of the demonstrations, but there did not appear to be any serious hostilities.
Obama and the First Family arrived on schedule at about 12:30 on Air Force One, the presidential 747. They were greeted on the tarmac by Schweitzer, Baucus, Tester and the mayor of Bozeman, Kaaren Jacobson, and got inside just before a big thunderstorm dumped noisy rain on the hanger roof. Obama quipped that Michelle and the girls were off to a whitewater rafting trip, though it’s unclear if the weather disrupted those plans. (It also remained unclear exactly where the President was going after the Bozeman meeting, though Yellowstone Park was the next official stop on the itinerary.)
Entering the hall, Obama grinned broadly and said “Hello, Montana,” and then added “I’m excited to be back in Montana.” He thanked Baucus, who he said was “working tirelessly to make sure we get a fair deal.” Obama was introduced by a Bozeman woman named Katie Gibson, who recounted her long struggles with health insurance that paralleled her long struggle with cancer.
Obama fielded about eight questions in the hour-plus appearance, including two from people who were unfriendly to his program. One older man, noting that he was an NRA member, asserted that “you can’t pay for” the program that was under discussion. Obama responded that about two-thirds of the estimated $80 billion to $90 billion a year in costs would be recovered by savings from changing some of the payment structures in Medicare to create better incentives for medical providers to be efficient. The other third, he said, would be paid for by raising taxes on people “like me” who make more than $250,000 a year.
Another questioner, Mark Montgomery, an insurance agent, asked why the President was “vilifying” the insurance industry. Obama noted in response that the reform proposals overall aimed to work with insurance companies, as opposed to a single-payer system that would essentially eliminate the health insurance industry altogether.
Obama also sought to tie health reform to the broader economic recovery effort, noting the ways in which Montana had benefited from recovery spending and calling health care reform “one of the key pillars of this new foundation” for the American economy.
Update, 8/15: The President and his family stayed the night at the Summit Hotel in Big Sky, according to several sources. Michelle and Sasha and Malia did indeed go whitewater rafting on the Gallatin River, and reportedly had a great time despite the marginal weather. And President Obama did do a little fly fishing – one source said it was at a ranch near Belgrade owned by Ben and Penelope Pierce.