Pundits are warning that a fact-challenged President Barack Obama is hurting his own credibility and further confusing the healthcare debate, after yet another litany of misstatements and dubious assertions during Friday's town hall meeting in Belgrade, Mont.
Obama continues to portray himself as a myth-buster keeping the healthcare debate honest. Yet he repeated several of the same inaccuracies that various sources corrected him on after his town hall meeting Tuesday in New Hampshire.
After that event, the AARP issued a statement refuting Obama's claim the organization had endorsed his healthcare reform plan. The AARP has not endorsed any healthcare reform proposal.
It has endorsed Obama's initiative to reduce the cost of prescription medications. An AARP spokesman told Newsmax on Friday that the organization has no complaints about Obama's characterization in Montana of its positions.
On other topics, Obama did not fare as well, however. His strategy of reiterating talking points that already had been debunked or challenged drew heat from analysts who fault tactics they say are long on presidential charisma but sometimes short on credibility.
"Apparently he's more committed to 'selling' his plan than telling the truth," lamented Heritage Foundation spokesman Jim Weidman.
"Clever might have worked on less important issues, at least if the president had taken more care to maintain his credibility, which he has badly shot on healthcare," commentator Andy McCarthy fired off on a National Review blog.
The Montana crowd – which unlike the one in New Hampshire reportedly was not hand-picked by the White House – appeared no less Obama-friendly.
"Something's a little fishy here," Jim Walters, eastern coordinator for Resistnet, a grass-roots organization affiliated with the Grassfire.org Alliance, told Newsmax prior to the event. "They weren't supposed to start handing out tickets until 9 o'clock. I had people up here at 8, and the tickets were already gone."
Walters estimated 1,000 people were gathered outside the airport near Bozeman, Mont., where the event was held. Walters told Newsmax that union members who arrived via bus from Chicago had initiated an altercation with town hall protesters. He said he saw police making several arrests.
"I don't understand that," Walters said of the union response. "We're here to have peaceful rallies."
During the town hall meeting, Obama did field one tough question from a man who sells insurance for a living. He asked why the president is scapegoating an insurance industry that has generally cooperated with the administration's healthcare reform initiatives.
Obama denied that he is trying to "vilify" the insurance companies, said some insurance companies are lobbying against reform, and otherwise avoided a detailed answer as to why he views lambasting insurance companies as the way to sell healthcare reform.
Media pundits billed the town hall meeting as perhaps the most important one of Obama's presidency, given that poll numbers show support for the president's healthcare proposals sinking fast.
The Rasmussen Reports organization now reports that only 42 percent of voters support the president's proposals – a drop of 5 points in just two weeks. And for the first time in about two years, voters tell pollsters they trust Republicans more than Democrats to manage healthcare reform.
Obama quickly piled up errata that also plagued his previous town hall session on healthcare reform. Examples: The president promised no policyholder will lose his or her current coverage. But a study commissioned by the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank concluded that more than 88 million individuals would have to shift to a new plan, if the current proposals on the table are adopted. Other estimates issued by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) and the Urban Institute estimate the number will be lower, but still in the millions. Obama has admitted he can't control whether employers drop their current plan in favor of one that's cheaper. (It should be noted that most of these estimates assume a government-subsidized public option for insurance, however, which Obama now states he does not favor.) Obama said his plan to require insurance companies to cover preventative medicine would reduce Americans' healthcare expenditures. As laudable as preventative medicine may be, the CBO has concluded it will actually increase the costs of medical care due to the large number of preventative tests needs to screen for diseases that the vast majority of people will not develop. Obama stated that there are 46 million uninsured Americans, a number very much in dispute. It includes undocumented workers without insurance, workers temporarily without coverage, and people eligible for Medicare who simply haven't needed it yet, but who can obtain it at a moment's notice. Obama again stated that a combination of savings, and a tax surcharge on those earning more than $250,000 annually, would make healthcare reform deficit-neutral. Conservative think tanks dispute that. But even if the statement were accurate, it doesn't account for a subsequent budget shortfall that would reach over $188 billion per year by 2020, according to the Wall Street Journal. Obama maintains that "any discussion" of the public-option has always assumed it would not be government-subsidized. In fact, he says any suggestion to the contrary is a distortion. But during the campaign, Obama stated that he personally favors a single-payer system that would be paid for by the government. Until Obama recently redefined the term "public option," it was broadly understood to refer to a health-insurance option financed by the government. Moreover, even Obama's "non-subsidized" public-option would cost taxpayers hundreds of millions – if not billions – in startup costs and creation of a bureaucratic infrastructure.
What's behind the administration's strategy of repeating as indisputable facts a litany of assertions that have been widely challenged?
Rich Noyes, director of research for the conservative Media Research Center, tells Newsmax that the administration is betting the mainstream media will continue echoing its talking points, without giving them the same sharp perusal they direct toward factual assertions from conservatives.
"We've seen fact-check after fact-check on NBC, ABC, and CBS, trying to debunk the conservative talking points," Noyes says. "And yet there's been no equal effort to scrutinize the claims put forth by Congress or the president, which is a very unbalanced playing field."
Noyes states Obama is trying to cast himself in a role similar to the fact-checkers employed by the networks, to give voters "the impression it is Obama and the fact-checkers versus a bunch of liars on the right."
That strategy assumes however that the mainstream media – which is rapidly losing audience to the Internet and other new media – remains sufficiently dominant to swing the debate in Obama's favor.
"That's their bet," Noyes says. "But one aspect that should concern the left is that as they debunk conservative criticism of the bill, they're also giving those criticisms more prominence. And that may drive people to seek out information on the Internet, and educate themselves.
"It may have the boomerang effect of getting people more familiar with the facts than they otherwise would be, to the point where people may not come to the conclusion the network reporters and the White house want," Noyes says.
Everett Wilkinson, a leader and spokesman for Tea Party Patriots, the organization that has helped coordinate the grassroots response to town hall meetings hosted by members of Congress, says Obama's reiteration of contested talking points indicates his primary focus is not on public opinion.
"The Obama administration is one of the best ever at getting their message out," Wilkinson tells Newsmax, "but you notice he continues to have a problem with getting the facts right. He continues to push his agenda, without worrying about the facts. That's because they really don't care about the facts. They just care about their agenda."
Wilkinson emphasizes that the Tea Party Patriots' movement transcends party lines. And despite efforts to paint town hall protesters as violent extremists, corporate lackeys, or GOP operatives, voters identify with them and sympathize with their concerns, he says.
"The administration is losing independent voters in leaps and bounds," Wilkinson says. "It's staggering the number of independents they're losing because they're pushing an agenda that the people don't want."
Polls indicate another frequent Obama assertion – that cuts to Medicare spending will be fully offset by cost savings – is failing to find resonance with seniors.
The Gallup organization recently reported: "Seniors are the least likely of all age groups in the U.S. to say that healthcare reform will benefit their personal healthcare situation. "By a margin of 36 percent to 12 percent, adults 65 and older are more likely to believe healthcare reform will reduce rather than expand their access to healthcare. And by 39 percent to 20 percent, they are more likely to say their own medical care will worsen rather than improve."
Ironically, Noyes says, Democrats may have only themselves and their friends in the media to blame for seniors' resistance to anything that even appears to cut Medicare funding.
"The Democrats and the media, for the last 15 years, cast any cut in Medicare, or Social Security for that matter, as an assault on old people," Noyes says. "Now they're the ones who want to cut Medicare, and they're trying to suggest it's just a painless cut due to cost reductions.
"And people are not buying it, because they laid the ground work that any reduction in funds is a reduction in care," Noyes says.
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