WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama is taking his healthcare reform message out west this weekend with two more public meetings seeking to overcome vociferous opposition to the $1 trillion overhaul scheme.
During a multi-state trip to national parks with his wife and daughters, Obama will speak and take questions in Montana and Colorado to try to convince Americans that the massive reform plan — his top domestic policy priority — is necessary to fix a broken system and push back against conservatives who say he wants a government takeover.
The two “town hall” meetings on Friday and Saturday will be Obama’s second and third such events within less than a week, after a meeting in New Hampshire on Tuesday.
They come as poll numbers reflect concern about the U.S. budget deficit and Republicans contend that the plan would be an expensive mistake, especially as the country tries to emerge from the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
Screaming demonstrators have disrupted some recent public information meetings on healthcare held by members of Congress from Obama’s Democratic party, which captured media attention and overshadowed debate on the plan’s complex details.
Even some healthcare supporters have faulted Obama for relying too heavily on others to make his case, and faulted the White House for letting healthcare opponents dominate the discussion.
“It’s OK if the fringes believe certain things, but you don’t want their ideas creeping into the mainstream,” said Darrell West of the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Obama’s public meetings will help, experts said.
“A president, only a president, has a pulpit bully enough to reshape the debate,” said James Morone, a Brown University professor and author of “The Heart of Power: Health and Politics in the Oval Office”
“It’s entirely in Obama’s hands,” he said.
Others said a president who ran a nearly flawless media campaign while he sought the office should have stepped in sooner, and more strongly.
“The Obama campaign was almost perfect on message,” said George Lakoff, a linguistics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of “The Political Mind,” on how politicians frame their debates.
“How could the same people make this mess of things?” he asked. Lakoff, who has advised Democrats on communications, said the White House had mis-framed its argument by focusing too much on policy details.
For example, “‘Public option’ doesn’t resonate,” he said, referring to plans for a government-run insurance program that would compete with private firms.
“It’s very simple, you call it ‘the American plan.’”
The administration believes Obama’s efforts are paying off and winning converts and blasts opponents for spreading misinformation and using scare tactics, like saying reform would create “death panels” to decide whether the elderly would receive treatment.
“I do believe that the president feels strongly that when he makes his case, it helps the case for overall health care reform,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.
He said Obama “felt very satisfied” with the New Hampshire meeting. “I think he was able to take on ... the misconceptions that had been out there in the legislation. So I think he feels like we have made progress.”
White House senior adviser David Axelrod launched an email campaign on Thursday to spread the administration’s position. “Right now, someone you know probably has a question about reform that could be answered by what’s below. So what are you waiting for? Forward this email.”
Editing by Vicki Allen