By Ian Swanson and J. Taylor Rushing - 08/11/09 07:50 AM EDT
It’s the first town hall Obama has taken part in since events across the nation have erupted into vocal shouting matches between lawmakers and constituents that have threatened to become even worse.
Town halls featuring a president, however, are much more closely guarded by the Secret Service. Presidential events also are generally tightly controlled, with questioners often vetted beforehand.
Deputy press secretary Bill Burton said Monday that invitations to the event at a Portsmouth high school were provided to the general public, though he said they were handed out through the offices of members of Congress and through other groups. He said about 1,800 people were expected.
Obama thinks that if people “want to come and have a spirited debate” about healthcare, it’s a part of the American tradition he wants to encourage, Burton said during a gaggle on Air Force One.
Burton spoke in response to a question about what Obama though of an op-ed in USA Today penned by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) that described disruptive protesters as “un-American.” The Democratic leaders have been criticized by Republicans for the op-ed.
Burton said Obama doesn’t think it is productive for people to come to town halls “so that you can disrupt and so that you can scream over another person.”
Burton said people should try to talk out what their problems are instead of working to shout each other down.
There have now been two incidents involving firearms at weekend healthcare town halls involving Democratic congressmen. On Saturday, at an event at a southern Arizona grocery store hosted by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, aides found a gun that had been dropped by a visitor in a meet-and-greet line. Aides called police, and there was no violence, but Giffords told an Arizona newspaper, “yelling and screaming is counterproductive.”
In Memphis, Tenn., at a town hall meeting hosted by Rep. Steve Cohen (D) that was described as “tense” and “ugly” by the Memphis Commercial Appeal, one member of the audience was discovered with a firearm and escorted from the room. Police determined the man had a proper concealed weapons permit, and cooperated when asked to leave the weapon in his car.
The Service Employees International Union, which has endorsed Democratic health reform efforts, also reported Monday a voice mail left at its headquarters that warned the union not to send members to town hall events to block protesters.
“I suggest you tell your people to calm down, act like American citizens and stop trying to repress people’s First Amendment rights,” the recording said. “That, or you all are going to come up against the Second Amendment.”