PORTSMOUTH, N.H. - - President Barack Obama ventured into the summer's unpredictable town hall meetings on health care Tuesday, facing a polite audience, while lawmakers elsewhere continued to confront enraged citizens - a contrast that showed how far the administration still must go to bridge the divide.
The president used his appearance Tuesday at a high school in Portsmouth, N.H., to frame his view of the health care crisis, appeal to wavering Americans and counter what he said were outlandish fallacies in arguments by Republicans and conservatives.
But at the same time, the outpouring of anger continued from those who see health care reform as misguided federal policy or even destructive to the country's fabric.
"I think it is very hard, because [Democrats] don't have the message machine the Republicans do," said George Lakoff, a University of California-Berkeley linguistics professor who has advised some Democrats on how to sharpen their message. "The Democrats still believe in Enlightenment reason: If you just tell people the truth they will come to the right conclusion."
In Missouri, hecklers at Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill's town hall meeting got so rowdy that security officials removed two people. In Pennsylvania, a protester put out by Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter predicted God would harshly judge him and his "damn cronies on Capitol Hill."
As skepticism, suspicion and misunderstanding of the Obama proposals run deep and wide across the country, the White House plan to counter it was on full display Tuesday.
"The way politics works sometimes is that people who want to keep things the way they are will try to scare the heck out of folks, and they'll create bogeymen out there that just aren't real," Obama said. "We can't let them do it again."
The White House pledged to keep hammering away with its set of explanations and arguments. If people only understood, one senior administration official suggested, their idea would win the day.
"Our challenge each and every day," press secretary Robert Gibbs said, "is to go out and make sure people understand that doing nothing costs the American people more in health care spending. ... It makes our budgetary problems worse, it causes people to lose their coverage and lose their doctor. And we can change all that."
Obama's appearance Tuesday came as the White House mounted a campaign using techniques honed during the 2008 presidential campaign. Included are Web videos, fact-checks and rapid-response efforts.
"If you look back at the campaign, the credibility of the Republicans became a story line in itself," said one Democrat close to the White House, who like others discussed the strategy on condition of anonymity. "And when people question your credibility, they'll also question the substance of what you have to offer."
But opponents have managed to slow the health care overhaul and postpone Obama's original goal of summer passage, gaining traction by haunting Democrats back in their districts for an August break.
Most persistent are variations on the same question: Will Democrats' reform proposals ultimately put government bureaucrats in charge of deciding who gets health care and who does not?
Based on the persistence of nagging questions, and at least one outright falsehood, Democrats have a tough road ahead.
Obama took an easy shot Tuesday at correcting the record, addressing former Republican Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's claim that Obama's plan would create "death panels" to decide who gets to live and die. In fact, there are no such boards in any of the bills under consideration.
"This arose out of a provision in one of the House bills that allowed Medicare to reimburse people for consultations about end-of-life care, setting up living wills," Obama said. "Somehow it's gotten spun into this idea of death panels." Laughing off the assertion, he said: "Um, I am not in favor of that. I want to clear the air."
Obama went on to address a related point, noting concerns that health changes would mean rationed care. But already, the president argued, "insurance companies are rationing care. They are basically telling you what's covered and what's not."
"Why is it that people would prefer having insurance companies make those decisions, rather than medical experts and doctors?"
The president's answer didn't entirely satisfy Ben Hershenson, a retired pharmacy professor who asked Obama about rationing. "I honestly believe there will be rationing beyond what we currently have," he said after the meeting.
Obama was much more assertive in his answers at the town hall than he had been in other settings, one congressional strategist said, saying that approach would help Democrats regain control of the debate.
"There is this rage out there," the strategist said. "The right wing has tapped into it. I don't think it's necessarily just about health care. They [the protesters] see they can get on TV by screaming."
But many Democrats elsewhere around the country report that they have held town hall meetings that have not been disrupted.
"If you get the facts out there, people understand it," said Brendan Daly, spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
But shortly after Obama appeared before his town hall meeting, protesters outside went from chanting their points of view to yelling at each other about whether Obama's plan amounted to "socialism."
One man's T-shirt transformed the rising sun emblem of the Obama presidential campaign into a communist hammer-and-sickle symbol, with the word "Obamacare" emblazoned beneath it.
Nearby, a young girl held a sign reading, "Obama lies, Grandma dies."
As he left the site, the president's motorcade went the other way.