Traffic ahead slows, then stops. The two-lane road into Belgrade turns into Montana's worst traffic jam. It's not because of any wreck—just the crowds headed to President Barack Obama's Aug. 14 town hall meeting, the hordes of protesters, and the hapless people who were just driving the road trying to get to somewhere else. It takes me a half-hour to drive the last mile or so, and I'm thinking, Obama is losing hundreds of votes in this traffic jam.
The town hall is billed as a dialog about Obama's effort to reform health care and health insurance in this country. It's being held on the fringe of the Gallatin Field Airport, in a hangar—basically a big room where the entrances can be secured.
Outside, there are hundreds of protesters. They've been awarded stubbly fields of mowed tallgrass, along the roads near—but not too near—the hangar. Some of the anti-reform protesters arrive in a bus that's emblazoned with a big orange hand and lettering that says, "Hands Off My Health Care." It's part of a national campaign run by a group calling itself Americans for Prosperity, which also advocates for tax cuts and the tobacco industry, with financial support from ExxonMobile and right-wing foundations. Others hold signs warning that Obama's reform will destroy health care, or against the government in general. Still others are here to support the president, or hold signs pushing for a single-payer option, imagining the creation of U.S. government-run health insurance covering all people.
As I walk from the grass to the hangar, the security gets tighter and tighter. Marine Corps helicopters are parked on the tarmac and flying overhead. Up on the roof of the hangar itself, snipers. All that is necessary, but it puts Montana's legendary informality and low-hassle lifestyle through the grinder.
At the door to the hangar, more guards use metal detectors to screen everyone for weapons. Inside, the room fills with people—maybe 1,300 in all, sitting on folding chairs or standing. The whole room's dress code tends toward jeans, and some wear T-shirts or sweatshirts, cowboy hats or baseball caps.
A couple of leading Montana Democrats—Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Sen. Jon Tester—give brief speeches to warm up the audience. The governor gets lots of applause by telling the audience, "It's a great day for Montana!" and says he hopes that Obama will see "the majesty of God at work" in Montana, especially the famous Old Faithful geyser eruptions in Yellowstone National Park, stretching geography a bit, since the geyser is actually located a few miles into Wyoming.
Before Obama appears on stage, Montana's most controversial Democrat, Sen. Max Baucus, takes the podium. He's chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which is hashing out the Senate's positions on reform—and he's refusing to create a single-payer health insurance plan. Many grumble about Baucus' stance, saying he's sold out regular Montanans to the interests of the health care corporations that donate millions to his election campaigns.
Baucus tries to continue the warm-up by giving his own fiery speech, but he mentions only modest reforms—mostly just to make it harder for insurance companies to deny people coverage. He gets some applause anyway, kind of just for showing up.
Then a regular Montanan takes the podium: Katie Gibson talks of how she's battled cancer and related medical problems for years—along with battling her insurance company over whether it would cover her bills. She's a living example carefully selected to support Baucus' position. And at the end of her speech, she introduces the person we've all come to see.
After a standing ovation, Obama delivers his brief remarks fluidly, as usual. Then he strips off his suit jacket and, in a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up on his forearms, he takes a handheld microphone and begins answering questions posed by people in the audience.
In the dialog, Obama talks about the "scare tactics" used by his most cynical opponents and cable-television talk shows, such as the claim that he would create "death panels" to choke off medical care for elderly people. It's a claim so crazy that denying it also sounds crazy. "Because we're getting close [to some reforms]," Obama says, "the fight is getting fierce."
Obama makes like he's also here to prop up Baucus—doing Democratic Party politics as well as health-care reform. He keeps referring to Baucus by first name, as many Montanans do, only favorably.
Obama seems to disagree with Baucus on some points, though. The president brings it up while responding to Carol Wilder, a Montanan recently laid off with two kids on government-run Medicaid. She asks what Obama sees in the different health insurance systems in Canada and Europe, where governments provide popular versions of single-payer? Obama says he wants "a uniquely American solution" that should include something along the lines of a nationwide health insurance "exchange"—some new marketplace where millions of people could band together to buy insurance. Forming such a large group of customers, he says, they would have better leverage and efficiencies of scale, so rates would be lower. If Baucus wants that too, Baucus hasn't played it up.
Obama also tells the audience that he'd like to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans to help pay for reform—something else Baucus doesn't mention. Pundits think Baucus and Obama are battling behind the scenes, and maybe they're cutting a deal to create some kind of "exchange" rather than single-payer.
Obama responds to several skeptics saying, "That's a legitimate question." Obama keeps using one of his own down-home words—"folks"—to refer to just about anyone. He completely abandons his Harvard and Columbia degrees to intentionally misuse the language for a moment—"got to be careful of them cable network shows." He points to another woman who's wearing a cowboy hat and says, "If I'm in Montana, I've got to call on someone with a cowboy hat." Several times he laughs in such a way that I think his laughter must be genuine. He appears to be enjoying himself.
Finally, after 45 minutes of answering questions, Obama winds down the dialog, gets another standing ovation, then steps down from the stage to mingle with some of the crowd. As I walk out with everyone else, many of us are talking about the feeling of being in the room together. And we're noticing, the snipers are still up on the roof, just in case.
Ray Ring is the senior editor of High Country News (hcn.org) and based in Bozeman.