WASHINGTON – His approval ratings slipping, President Barack Obama is retooling his message on health care overhaul, aiming to win over Americans who already have insurance.
Polling shows that Americans — especially those who already have coverage — are skeptical of the Democratic proposals to expand coverage to the nearly 50 millions who lack it. So Obama will use a potentially boisterous town hall-style meeting in New Hampshire to highlight how his proposals would affect workers whose employers provide their health insurance.
Critics of the president's plan — his top domestic priority — have grabbed headlines by disrupting town hall meetings, putting the White House on the defensive.
Hours before Obama was to arrive at Portsmouth High School, the road leading to the event site was lined with people — about 100 supporters of Obama's health care overhaul on one side and about half as many opponents on the other.
"I'm here because I'm an American, I believe in free speech and I'm scared to death," said Barbara Taylor, 65, of Exeter, N.H.
She arrived at 7:30 a.m. and was soaking wet from a severe downpour earlier in the morning. The rain had blurred the red ink on the sign Taylor carried: "Hands Off Our Health Care."
On the other side, Linda McVay held her own sign calling attention to Americans without health insurance. She said her son has been without insurance since losing his job in November.
Obama is prepared for possible disruptions Tuesday, said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, appearing on television talk shows.
"I think what the president will do is turn to that person and probably ask them to be civilized and give them an answer to their question," Gibbs told CBS' "The Early Show."
Concerns over Obama's proposal are heating up meetings, chat rooms and radio shows, driving his approval numbers down and threatening the future of his signature issue. While Congress is in recess for the month of August, lawmakers are hearing from frustrated constituents worried about government's role in health care and the costs of an overhaul.
"There's a lot of fear out there," said Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, a New Hampshire Democrat.
To calm that fear, Obama plans to spend the month highlighting the upside of health overhaul for Americans already with insurance, starting in a state in which 89 percent of residents have health coverage.
In Portsmouth, N.H., Obama will speak directly about his proposal to ban insurance companies from denying individuals coverage because of pre-existing conditions. During a Friday trip to Bozeman, Mont., he will talk about how his plan would block companies from dropping an individual's coverage if he or she becomes ill. And in Grand Junction, Colo., the president will talk about how the Democrats' plan would end high out-of-pocket costs in some policies.
The Democratic National Committee began running television ads that ask, "What's in it for you?" and then highlights those goals. Officials said the ad started running Monday night in Washington and on cable; it would follow as early as Tuesday in states Obama planned to visit, including New Hampshire.
About 1,800 people are expected for that midday event in the Democratic-leaning Seacoast region of the Granite State. Of those, 70 percent were given tickets based on a random lottery — a potentially dicey crowd in a state known for its grass-roots political activism.
"Participating in government here in New Hampshire is like putting on socks for the average American," said Ray Buckley, the chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party.
Outside, a dozen grass-roots organizations plan a counter-rally.
Republicans say the heated debate is a sign of widespread public dissatisfaction with Obama's ideas. But with some of the anxieties spilling into angry disruptions and even threats, Democrats have accused Republicans of orchestrating the events to sabotage legislation. In an article published Monday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer wrote, "Drowning out opposing views is simply un-American."
Obama and his aides stayed away from such provocative language.
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