Cheers greet Obama as he defends radical healthcare reforms

President rouses fervour reminiscent of election as he answers his critics in a rousing Minneapolis rally
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The Independent US

Taking his pitch for healthcare reform to main-street America with a rousing rally in a basketball arena in Minneapolis, Barack Obama vowed yesterday that his plan would overturn a broken system which, according to newly released figures, leaves half of those aged under 65 without insurance at some point.

"These are people who are working every day. These are middle-class Americans," an energised President Obama told a standing-room-only crowd inside the Target Center. "In other words, it can happen to anyone. There but for the grace of God go I." To loud cheers, he added: "We've got to do something."

Three days after his healthcare speech to a rare joint session of Congress in Washington, Mr Obama is switching his focus to a still-wary American public, trying to reassure them about the details of his plan, including the cost and the role any public-insurance entity might play. Tonight he gives a rare interview on 60 Minutes, on CBS. He will address a union convention in Pittsburgh on Tuesday.

Even before the President's arrival, the emotions unleashed by the health debate were in view outside the arena. Furious boos greeted a man with a placard that said "Liar, liar", echoing the Republican congressman who blurted "You lie!" at the President last week. A woman wore a surgical mask with "Obama Flu" across it. Elsewhere a man in a wheelchair shouted, "Socialists!" at those going inside.

At the podium, the President was indeed greeted by a mostly supportive crowd, which frequently erupted into the kind of fervour not seen since his campaigning days last year. Some came wearing blue Obama-Biden 2008 shirts – retrieved from their bottom drawers for the day. Margaret Houlton, 43, was among them. "He needs our help," she explained. "Obama is trying to do change and change is hard."

Other groups had had new T-shirts made up for the occasion. Followers of pro-choice Planned Parenthood wore pink, with the polite slogan: "Healthcare for Every Community". Members of a food industry union were in orange. A local nurses' association sported red with: "RX, Exercise Your Rights".

Yelva Lynfield, 76, a retired doctor, was with the pink crowd. If she has problems with the Obama plan it is because it doesn't go far enough. She rejects those, like the heckling congressman, who insist that no benefits should go to illegal immigrants. "If one of those gets TB, doesn't get treatment and coughs on me, that's a problem. They should be entitled to get coverage also."

Repeatedly interrupted by chants of "Yes, we can" – his campaign refrain – Mr Obama seemed to relish his return to the stump. Asking that people knock on doors and help win the support of waverers, he resurrected another line from last year: "I want to know, Minnesota. Are you fired up, ready to go?"

After a rocky August, Mr Obama has been forced to push back, trying at once to rebut "lies" from his foes, including the claim that "death panels" will decide when the elderly should die, and to persuade ordinary Americans that doing nothing is not an option, and leaving so many people uninsured is immoral.

Thus, yesterday, he seized on the new figures from a US Treasury study showing that, over a span of 10 years, 48 per cent of all Americans under the age of 65 will lose their health insurance at some time. And more than one third of Americans will find themselves uncovered for a year or more.

In the CBS interview, Mr Obama says that, whatever is agreed, the Bill must actually help attain his aims of giving coverage to all and lowering costs. "I have no interest in having a Bill get passed that fails. That doesn't work," he says, according to pre-released extracts. "I intend to be President for a while, and once this Bill passes, I own it."

This week may determine whether a bipartisan deal can be struck in the key Senate Finance Committee, which is weeks behind in agreeing on a draft Bill, or whether Mr Obama will have to rely on his own party to push a final version through Congress for him to sign. He has signalled over recent days that he is ready to forgo provisions to set up a public insurance entity to compete with private insurers.

The "public option", as it is known, has been passionately embraced by liberals and equally fiercely resisted by conservatives, including some in the President's own party on Capitol Hill.

"The public option is a big idea, but it's a bad idea," insisted Doug Bass, 52, an unemployed teacher who was brandishing his own anti-reform placard outside the arena, with the question "How many Trillions?" – a reference to the cost of the reform plan.

"I don't mean any disrespect," he said, "but I don't like this National Health thing in the UK. Ted Kennedy didn't go to England for his brain tumour."