Town-hall outbursts reflect worries of American public

Most people aren't shouting-match mad, but polls show they do relate to protesters' concerns about US debt, health reform, and bailouts.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
Randy Hook, of Hopewell, Pa. (r.) questions Sen. Arlen Specter (D) of Pennsylvania during a town hall meeting on health care in a Penn State University ballroom in State College, Pa., Wednesday. More than 400 attended.

It may seem hard to gauge whether the citizen outbursts at this month's town hall meetings are real or staged, but here's a kind of top-down reality check: The concerns protesters are raising are ones that many Americans relate to.

Washington politicians have gone on the road for listening tours on healthcare policy, but they've gotten an earful about a lot more: the national debt, taxes, and whether bailouts and government-run health insurance put the very Constitution at risk.

In this era of high-stakes politics and reality TV, it's valid to ask whether political or corporate orchestration is behind some of the seemingly genuine anger. But here's another important question: How much do the town hall meetings reflect the range of American public opinion?

The average person isn't necessarily shouting-match mad about healthcare or taxes, but large numbers share some concerns that have been raised in the recent public forums.

Here's a blow-by-blow:

• One woman in Lebanon Pa., on Tuesday worried that America may be turning "into Russia, into a socialist country." Her impassioned statement echoed those of others at the town halls who see corporate bailouts and proposed healthcare programs as an expansion of government beyond its constitutional limits. What polls say: In March, Americans were asked which they saw as the most significant threat to the country: big business, big labor, or big government. Big government was the winner hands down, with 55 percent, versus 32 percent for big business and 10 percent for big labor. The results haven't changed much on this USA Today/Gallup question since 1999, according to, although concern about business rose during the dotcom bust and the recent financial crisis.

That doesn't translate directly into concerns about socialism or frayed adherence to the Constitution. But in 2007, a Pew Research Center poll found that 65 percent of Americans believe government has too much control. That was up from 60 percent in 2002. The Pew survey found similar levels of concern in some European nations that actually are more socialist in set-up.

• Other town-hall talkers focus on US budget deficits – and how healthcare reforms might affect their taxes. Here, too, polls show such worries are common. As healthcare reform has gathered steam, the number of Americans saying they disapprove of how Obama is handling the federal budget deficit has risen to 55 percent (in mid-July) from 48 percent (in late May), according to a USA Today/Gallup poll. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds that deficit spending ranks second (ahead of healthcare) on a list of top national priorities. But the top-ranking item, "job creation and economic growth," garnered more followers in July, while the number of people citing deficits sagged slightly compared with June.

• Much public anxiety and outrage center squarely on the healthcare issue – concerns such as whether legislation would reduce the quality of the insurance people already have. On this issue, public opinion mirrors the complexity of the questions at hand. Most Americans want to see some major reforms, but they're often wary of the process under way in Washington. Roughly equal numbers of Americans would advise their representative to vote for (35 percent) and against (36 percent) a reform bill, finds a new Gallup poll. When asked to choose who should make "tough decisions" about "which patients get certain treatments," 40 percent said insurers and 40 percent said government, in a CNN/Opinion Research poll.

And in a Quinnipiac University Poll released earlier this month, pluralities said they believed Obama's reforms would raise the cost of their own health insurance and reduce its quality. At the same time, a majority supported "giving people the option of being covered by a government health insurance plan that would compete with private plans."

After one event Wednesday, Sen. Arlen Specter (D) of Pennsylvania said the people who come to town hall meetings "may not be representative of America, but they are significant, and their views have to be taken into account."

Some of the behavior may not be representative. But judging by polls, many of the concerns are.


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