Obama takes on 'rumors' at friendly town hall

President Barack  Obama jumped into the town hall healthcare fray as the debate has reached a fever pitch at raucous congressional forums -- but his Tuesday event was unusually mellow and friendly.

Obama's goal to take on the "wild misrepresentations" he said are skewing the debate was aided by the question of a girl who asked the president about such claims, saying, "I saw a lot of signs outside saying mean things about health reform."

Obama said those spreading "rumors" about bills moving through Congress are trying "to scare the heck out of folks" and are creating "boogeymen out there that just aren't real."

Obama also took on health insurance companies he said hold customers "hostage," as well as so-called "death panels," an accusation from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R).

On her Facebook page Saturday morning, Palin called Obama's healthcare proposal "downright evil."

"The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's 'death panel' so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their 'level of productivity in society' whether they are worthy of health care," Palin wrote.

The idea Palin was criticizing, Obama said, came from a proposal by Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) that would add a provision to Medicare to assist with end-of-life decisions. Isakson has since noted that Palin's assessment of the proposal is inaccurate.

In Portsmouth, N.H., Obama described the rumor of "death panels that will basically pull the plug on grandma because we've decided it's too expensive to let her live anymore."

The president explained Isakson's provision, which the senator clarified in an interview with The Washington Post, saying "somehow it's gotten spun into this idea of death panels. I am not in favor of that."

While the president did not mention Palin, the 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee and a likely candidate to challenge Obama in 2012, by name, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters on Air Force One that "we'd all be served better if the coverage of that was less about the personality of the former governor and more about the fact that even Republicans think what she said isn't true."

But Gibbs said despite Palin's comments and the subsequent dust-up, the White House is not losing the message battle.

"Is there a constant struggle because you guys would rather cover Sarah Palin saying something that Johnny Isakson says is nuts? Sure, there's always a struggle in that," Gibbs said.

Congressional members' town halls around the country have seen an uptick in shouting, reports of armed attendees and even a conservative activist injured in St. Louis, but Obama was largely spared any verbal assaults from what appeared to be a friendly crowd that contrasted sharply with the protesters gathered outside the high school auditorium.

Despite that, Obama, before opening up the question-and-answer portion, said he hoped that "we will talk with each other and not over each other."

Obama vigorously defended his plan, as he continued to fight the notion that his proposal would amount to government-run insurance.

"This is not about putting the government in charge of your health insurance," Obama said. "I don't think government bureaucrats should be meddling, but I also don't think insurance bureaucrats should be meddling."

As part of the administration's summer offensive, the Department of Health and Human Services released a report Tuesday on health insurance companies' "practice of denying coverage to or discriminating against Americans who have pre-existing medical conditions."