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Obama blasts 'fear mongering' in healthcare reform speech

President Obama continued his bid to convince Americans that his plan is not radical at a speech in Maine Thursday. Why Maine? It has been a pioneer in passing bipartisan healthcare reform laws.

By Colin WoodardCorrespondent / April 1, 2010

President Obama greets supporters after speaking about healthcare reform in Portland, Maine, Thursday.

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Portland, Maine

President Obama touted the benefits of the new healthcare reform law in a public speech here Thursday, using the friendly atmosphere of a state that has been a national leader on bipartisan healthcare reform to push back at “fear mongering” critics who say it will undermine the country.

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For Mr. Obama, who has insisted that the American people will like the healthcare bill as they get to know what is in it, Thursday's address in Maine was the second stop in a tour designed to do just that: sell the bill to Americans.

Responding to the fact that opinion polls indicate many voters are unhappy with the healthcare overhaul, he said: “It's been a week, folks. So before we find out if people like healthcare reform, we should wait to see what happens when we actually put it into place.”

In many ways, the speech was a repetition of the main theme he laid out in Iowa last week: The bill is not the radical job-killing, healthcare-wrecking piece of legislation opponents claimed it would be.

"[Republican House Leader] John Boehner … called the passage of this bill ‘Armageddon,' " the president said. “So after I signed the bill, I looked up at the sky to see if asteroids were coming. I looked at the ground to see if cracks had opened up in the earth. You know what, it turned out it was a pretty nice day."

Maine: friendly turf

Thursday was likely to be a pleasant day for the president whatever the national mood on healthcare reform, given that he was in Maine, a state where he won 15 of 16 counties in the 2008 presidential election, and some of the 2,500 in attendance had waited in line from at 1 a.m. to 11 a.m. for tickets.

Yet the choice of Maine, on one hand, surprised many political observers. Obama won't win any elections for Democrats this fall by coming here.

Both of the state's members of the US House of Representatives are Democrats expected to easily win reelection. And its centrist Republican senators, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, don’t face voters until 2012 and 2014 respectively.

But if the White House was looking for friendly turf in a rural, relatively poor, and overwhelmingly white state, it chose the right place. Democrats control the state legislature and the governor’s mansion, while their majority on Portland’s city council is challenged not by Republicans, but by Greens.

And while developments in Maine generally have little influence in national politics, healthcare is an exception.

A leader in healthcare reform

This was the first state to enact a law to prevent insurers from denying coverage to people with preexisting conditions. Since then, it has created discounted drug programs, subsidized insurance for the poor, and established limits on how much insurers can allocate to administrative costs and profits.

“We have pioneered many of the things the president wants to do, and people in Maine have been resources for the president and members of Congress,” says state legislator Sharon Treat, who’s played a key role in the state’s reform efforts. “He’s coming to a place where a lot of people understand what this is about and what the stakes are.”

Maine’s reforms have had bipartisan support, with the first wave signed into law by then-Gov. John McKernan (R), now married to Senator Snowe. At the time, Senator Collins headed Mr. McKernan’s Department of Professional and Financial Regulation. This week, a bill banning annual and lifetime coverage caps received unanimous support in both of Maine’s legislative chambers.

“This is a state where we know everybody, and people can sit on opposite sides of the table and still consider each other friends afterwards,” says Joseph Ditre of Consumers for Affordable Health Care, who has lobbied for reforms here for 27 years. “If people were in need, legislators regardless of party have responded.”

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