The beginning of the town-hall meeting in Belgrade, Mont., was ominous. As Katie Gibson, the petite woman chosen to introduce President Obama, began, her soft-spoken testimony about losing medical-insurance coverage amid cancer treatment was suddenly overwhelmed by thunderclaps and a heavy downpour of rain and hailstones that reverberated through the cavernous metal airport hangar.
But by the time she brought on the President, the storm had eased, and he was warmly welcomed by most of the roughly 1,000 people in the crowd. Several people in attendance sat there grim-faced, arms folded, while others cheered Obama's lines. Most of the overt hostility remained outside and down the road, where the state highway joins with the airport road. There, anti-Obama demonstrators (made up mostly of two groups Patients Rights and Tea Party Patriots) were gathered with signs, right next to a pro-reform group, Montanans for Single Payer (many of whom are unhappy with Max Baucus, the Montanan who chairs the Senate Finance Committee and is a leading player in health-care reform). Montana was said to be ripe for conflict. Local unemployment and the ranks of the uninsured have risen dramatically in the past year as the bubble of the once booming construction market burst, sinking many resort jobs along with building trades and services.
Still, considering the buildup to this weekend's town-hall meetings (the President has one more, on Saturday afternoon in Grand Junction, Colo.), the proceedings within were civil. Outside the hangar, angry vocal exchanges erupted, but no one got physical.
The President got pointed questions when he called on members of the audience, none of whom appeared to have been prescreened. Randy Rathie from far-off Ekalaka, Mont., introduced himself as a "proud NRA member" who gets his news from the cable channels, and said he had heard a lot of talk from Obama and the Democrats about reforming health care, which he indicated he wasn't quite buying. "You can't tell us how we're going to pay for this. You'll have to raise our taxes, when you said you wouldn't." Obama responded by outlining how he planned to fund the program: by eliminating medical-practice waste and insurance expenses, to cover two-thirds; and the remaining one-third by taxing those who make more than $250,000 a year. Noting that he is in the higher-income bracket, Obama said, "There's nothing wrong with me paying a little more to help people with less."
The President also assured a concerned health-insurance salesman from Helena who wanted to know why Obama decided during the health-care debate to "vilify" insurance companies that he was not declaring war on the companies but wants to streamline the way medical bills are calculated and treatment prescribed.
Carol Wilder, a single mother from nearby Bozeman who was laid off her from job in January and now has her two kids covered by Medicaid, wanted to know if Obama was going to follow the methods of countries such as Canada and the U.K. Obama responded that Americans pay more than $5,000 a year more than residents of those countries for their insurance and added that he is shooting for a "uniquely American system" without the government-run hospitals of some other countries. "It's not true that government will meddle with your doctor."
Another single mother, Sarah Landry, a Montana State University student, told Obama her 11-year-old son has severe autism and Type I diabetes and that "I rely heavily on Medicaid for coverage." She worried that a national plan might cut into his coverage. Obama assured her, "If your son currently qualifies for Medicaid, he could continue on Medicaid ... Our [existing] system is not a health-care system it's a disease-care system, because we wait until someone gets very sick." For example, he said, a diabetic should be counseled on health and helped long before reaching the point of having a foot amputated.
The meeting ended with the blaring of a recording of Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever." Obama stepped off the stage and worked the crowd, shaking hands and smiling as people snapped photos with cameras and cell phones. The First Family then boarded the green Marine One helicopter and headed southwest 60 miles, into the mountains, to land at the Big Sky Resort, the luxury ski and vacation-home development founded by a native son, broadcaster Chet Huntley, nearly 40 years ago. From Big Sky, the First Family will visit Yellowstone National Park before flying off on Air Force One Saturday afternoon to Grand Junction.