WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama will seek to counter an onslaught of conservative opposition to his efforts to overhaul the U.S. healthcare system by taking his message to a town hall meeting with the public on Tuesday at a New Hampshire high school.
The president is trying to grab back the initiative on his $1 trillion-plus healthcare plan from critics who have helped stoke public anger against his top domestic priority.
The increasingly bitter debate has dragged down Obama's once-lofty approval ratings.
The White House hopes the behavior at Obama's meeting will be less raucous and more civil than public forums held by some Democratic members of Congress, where some people in the crowd screamed and shouted to drown out the speakers.
I think what is unproductive ... is if somebody tries to come to a town hall meeting and you can't ask your question or your mother can't ask her question because somebody else is yelling, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said on NBC.
Obama's push for healthcare reform, which seeks to provide coverage to nearly 46 million uninsured Americans, rein in rising medical costs and regulate insurers, has been assailed by Republican critics over its cost and far-reaching scope.
Republicans call it a government takeover of the $2.5 trillion healthcare system that will drive up the deficit and hurt the economy while the United States remains mired in its longest recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Democrats who control Congress have feuded among themselves over how to pay for the healthcare revamp and Obama's popularity has slipped as the debate has dragged on.
The president, who has vowed to get healthcare reform enacted by the end of the year, says the package is vital to a recovery in the U.S. economy.
Amid signs of hardening attitudes on both sides, Obama focused his pitch on Tuesday to middle-class Americans, seeking to convince them of the benefits from proposed consumer protections on healthcare.
How do we cut costs for families? Gibbs said. How do we save small businesses from the crushing cost of healthcare? And how do we ensure that if you go to buy insurance today, you're not discriminated against by an insurance company based on a pre-existing condition?
TAUNTED BY HECKLERS
The issue is at a critical juncture, with Congress yet to reach a deal and lawmakers feeling the pressure from constituents, lobbyists and campaign donors.
Congressional Democrats holding their own town hall meetings back in their home districts have been shouted down and taunted by hecklers. Shoving matches have broken out.
White House aides have charged that the protests are orchestrated by Republican-backed groups and conservative talk-show hosts and have called for a more civil dialogue.
Republicans insist their supporters have a right to voice their opposition to the proposed changes.
Obama has accused his critics of spreading misinformation, including claims that the reforms will promote euthanasia and cut Medicaid benefits. The White House has also denied accusations it would lead to government-funded abortions.
The White House launched a Reality Check website on Monday to counter criticism of its healthcare proposals, a tactic similar to Obama's strategy of rapid-fire attacks on rumors when he was still a presidential candidate.
Obama's appearance in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, is his first big public healthcare event since the raucous protests at healthcare reform events began hitting the headlines in recent weeks.
(Editing by Simon Denyer and John O'Callaghan)