Can Obama Keep Town Halls Cool?

About 1,300 expected for Montana town hall

At one town hall meeting, the president of the United States had to challenge a mild-mannered audience to bring on the tough questions about his plans for health reform.

At others, one U.S. senator was the target of screaming voters, and a congressman lost his cool after repeated yelling and interruptions.

They’re all Democrats. They’re all town halls. And they’re all discussing the same topic. So what gives?

A number of factors contributed to the cooler temperature when President Barack Obama held his town hall in Portsmouth, N.H., Tuesday: from the location and a more tightly controlled ticketing process, to the unease even the most fervent critic might feel shouting at the president. The presence of those grim-faced Secret Service agents probably didn’t hurt, either.

Taken individually, no one reason alone can account for the president having to actively solicit skeptics of his plan to speak up, as Obama did Tuesday. Together, they work to create an inherently friendlier environment than those at the hometown events pulled together by lawmakers.

“He’s the president,” explained John Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College. “Being around the president is different from being around a member of Congress. You tell your children about the day you were in the room with the president of the United States. There’s just an aura around the office that doesn’t attach to any other office around the country.”

But Obama’s luck could change Friday afternoon when he meets an audience in a conservative suburb in the red state of Montana. For one thing, tickets were handed out Thursday on a first-come, first-served basis at two local city halls – a far more immediate process than the White House’s usual web-based system. And Bozeman is hardly the liberal Seacoast in the Democratic-leaning state of New Hampshire where Obama held court Tuesday.

“The town meeting in general has a long history in the state and the area’s civic culture, and it’s not usually seen as a place where people yell and scream and carry on with their elected officials,” said Dante Scala, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire.

“New Hampshire people will be skeptical and sharp and to the point, but they don’t necessarily get in your face in the way we’ve seen some of the clips around the country.”

The ticket policies are one of the biggest differences between the congressional town halls and Obama’s.

Some of the most heated town halls shown on 24-hour cable this week – events held by Democratic senators Arlen Specter (Pa.), Ben Cardin (Md.) and Claire McCaskill (Mo.) -- featured walk-up admission on a first-come, first-served basis, meaning anyone who wanted to attend could show up and get in on the spot. That seemed to all but assure that some of the most passionate opponents would get their voices heard.

The White House says anyone can attend Obama’s town halls too – but they usually have to go through a multi-step process that includes signing up on the White House website, getting selected at random out of thousands of interested people and showing up to get the tickets.

That is the distribution process for most of Obama’s town halls, including Portsmouth, and it’s also the process for Obama’s town hall Saturday in Grand Junction, Colo.

The administration usually gives out 70 percent of the tickets to the general public through the website. The other 30 percent are given to elected officials and local leaders – mostly Democrats.

According to the White House the process in Portsmouth worked this way:

The White House created a link where people could sign up for the town hall. The link is not reachable through itself, but is distributed in a press release to local media outlets, which spread the word. The White House also uses the link via Facebook and arranges for it to pop up in a Google search.

There is a set time frame for the people to sign up – roughly 24 hours for Saturday’s event in Colorado  – with their name phone number, email address and zip code.

Those names are put into a spreadsheet program that has a randomizer. The White House then notifies people by phone or email that they’ve been selected and how to pick up their tickets, usually at the site of the town hall.

That the rest of the tickets go to mostly Democratic elected officials and community leaders automatically dilutes the level of opposing views in the room. It's a factor that hasn't applied to the congressional town halls.

But it’s not just that there is no guaranteed sliver of Democrats seated in town halls held by lawmakers.

The president’s visit to a state is a monumental event that brings out the party loyalists much more easily than a member of Congress. The Montana Democratic Party posted front and center on its Web site: “The White House asked us to pass along the information to get Townhall tickets for the President's Bozeman Visit.” The White House said no one there had asked the state party to do that.

In New Hampshire, Democrats organized to converge on Obama’s town hall.

“We told volunteers to come out and make voices heard and have a chance to show support,” said Timothy Arsenault, field director for the New Hampshire arm of Organizing for America, Obama’s grassroots group of campaign supporters.

The potential effect on Obama’s town halls is that even if the ticket selection process is random, there are likely to be more Democrats in the random pool.

Some of the protestors outside the Portsmouth town hall said they had signed up to get tickets through the White House website. A few even got in, according members of the New Haven Republican Volunteer Coalition.

But they didn’t raise Cain.

Part of the reason could be that once inside a president’s event, there is an elevated level of respect, as Pitney said, a general feeling that yelling at the president of the United States is disrespectful. Before Obama’s event even the head of the New Hampshire GOP, former Gov. John Sununu, said he hoped attendees would treat the president respectfully.

The Secret Service presence at Obama’s events surely helps. They stand at the foot of his stage and are scattered throughout the room, suits on and ear-pieces in, ready to move on anyone who gets out of line.
But Obama is also a politician skilled at town halls and fielding tough questions.

“A lot of people at town halls have been trying to trip up members of Congress by asking difficult or tricky questions,” Pitney noted. “The one thing you can say about Barack Obama is he’s good at handling difficult and tricky questions. … You’re not going got embarrass Barack Obama in that way, he’s just too clever.”

The White House says the president wasn’t disappointed in the tone of his Portsmouth town hall and accuses the media of distorting the tenor of the ones across the country by focusing on the drama.

“While I appreciate that you all have decided that every town-hall meeting ends in pushing, shoving and yelling,” Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said to reporters, “they’re not completely indicative of what's going on in America.”

The White House has tried first-come, first-served ticketing – but moved away from it after a town hall in Los Angeles. The size of the area brought long lines and a bit of a headache for security, and the online method has dominated every since.

Assistant White House press secretary Reid Cherlin said the ticketing plan for Montana is not a response to the tame New Hampshire town hall, but was already in place before Tuesday. Cherlin also said the White House tailors its ticketing distribution process to the size, venue and locality of the event.

The White House expects roughly 1,300 people to attend the town hall in the Gallatin Field Airport hangar in Montana.

Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), who is a lead negotiator on health care reform legislation as chairman of the Finance Committee, will be among them. He is not scheduled to speak or appear on stage with the president, but his presence could inspire some critics in the audience.

The White House said Obama will discuss consumer protections that would be in a health care bill, specifically one that prohibits insurers from “dropping or watering down insurance coverage for those who become seriously ill.”

While it remains to be seen how feisty the crowd inside will be, as many as 500 protesters plan to demonstrate outside.

Nia-Malika Henderson contributed to this report.

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