Obama Heads for a Montana Showdown

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Linda Thompson / The Missoulian / AP

Protesters advocating a single payer health-care system gather outside of Senator Max Baucus' Front Street office in Missoula, Mont., on July 24, 2009

This weekend, U.S. national parks are offering free admission — and among the throngs visiting the natural wonders of Yellowstone will be Barack Obama and his family. But first, President Obama will appear at a site that may potentially rival Yellowstone's geyser basins as a hot spot: a health-care-policy town-hall gathering in Bozeman, Mont.

The event is a huge operation. The Secret Service reserved 40 cars from Avis to ferry the security detail for the President's Western swing. On Aug. 12, C-17 military planes and at least one Marine helicopter had already been flown into the airport at Belgrade, about 20 minutes away on I-90 from Bozeman, to prepare for Obama's arrival and for the side trips to Yellowstone as well as for another town-hall meeting in Grand Junction, Colo. That meeting will be the President's third such appearance after one in New Hampshire on Aug. 11 and Montana's on Aug. 14. (Obama won New Hampshire and Colorado in the election and lost Montana by a narrow margin.) Air Force One will land just after noon on Friday, and the President will speak at the spacious airport hangar shortly afterward.

Tickets to the Bozeman event were to be made available to the general public at both the Bozeman and Belgrade city halls on a first-come, first-served basis, limited to two per person. In a departure from the invitation-only presidential town halls of the previous Administration, the White House is not screening town-hall attendees, leaving open the likelihood of anti-Obama protesters showing up. There are many who may want to do so. The opposition to so-called Obamacare has been quite active in Montana, which lies along the route of a 12-state, $1 million bus tour organized by Americans for Prosperity, a GOP-linked conservative group. Its Patients First project last month ran a $1.3 million TV-ad campaign slamming national medical-insurance-reform efforts. The side of the Patients First bus bears a big red hand and letters blaring: "Hands off my health care." "We're organizing people against these proposals because they're bad for America," said Patients First local representative Jake Eaton, former executive director of the Montana Republican Party. "Montanans are coming out and speaking their mind and making their voices heard," he told Lee Newspapers State Bureau.

The President will have some rhetorical backup. The White House announced that a number of Montanans will appear with the President to bear witness to how they have been harmed by insurance companies' raising prices while they were under treatment for serious illnesses.

Other health-care-reform backers are organizing ground action. The Montana AFL-CIO is trying to rally union members to show up with identifying badges and clothing. Montanans for Single Payer — the same group that harassed Montana's Democratic Senator Max Baucus for his alleged timidity and compromising on the issue as chair of the Senate Finance Committee — sent out a message on Aug. 12 saying: "We need your help! ... If you have read or watched the news lately, you know that large numbers of disruptive, threatening mobs of anti-reform protesters have been showing up outside these events using intimidating tactics to try to shut down the debate and sow chaos. We urge you to come to help us present a different message — that we will not be bullied into abandoning the debate or the democratic process." The message urged single-payer advocates to wear white shirts, both to the town-hall gathering and to a rally for folks unable to get tickets.

On Aug. 12, area Democrats began to get their act together as well. Ray Tracy, the chair of the Yellowstone County Democrats, sent out the following call to action: "It's time we fight back! The Tea Party Patriots (so-called) are waging war against our President in our backyard. This Friday when President Obama comes to Bozeman, this group and a few others are planning protests. I say that we can't let this happen!" Tracy said Yellowstone Democrats who wanted to go to Bozeman would be bused in. "With your help, we can welcome Barack back to Montana and drown out those who don't want meaningful change in health care."