PORTLAND — President Obama took a victory lap in Maine on Thursday, riding the passage of health care reform with confidence, joking easily with thousands of supporters, gently mocking detractors and laying out his administration’s next steps.

He showed the same energy, enthusiasm and momentum he had when he came to Maine after his victory in the Iowa caucuses during his campaign in early 2008.

This was a president who staked his legacy on “change,” and delivered. And this was the crowd for him — several thousand highly supportive Mainers packed into the Portland Expo, reflecting his energy, focused back onto him.

Thursday’s appearance was clearly different from his two other visits to northern New England in the last year to talk about health care reform.

In August, when controversy over the developing bill was as hot as the weather, he spoke in Portsmouth, N.H., at a town hall appearance billed as part of his “listening” tour.

The crowd outside was contentious and loud, each side lining the road to the school where Obama spoke, yelling and using bullhorns to drown each other out. Inside, there was some give-and-take. A few people who weren’t supporters asked Obama questions about the package, and he tried to answer them.

In February, he came to Nashua, N.H., as part of the “prod Congress” tour. It was an attempt to push through health care reform, a dismissal of right-wing rhetoric and a challenge to congressional Democrats to get the bill passed.

It was the beginning of that effort, and Obama came off a bit defensive. There were fewer protesters. Health care was part of the push, but his new jobs proposals were at center stage.

Thursday was something else altogether.

Outside, thousands lined Park Avenue, waiting to get into the Expo. Across the street, 100 to 150 protesters gathered, carrying signs. But they were nowhere near as vocal as those at the event in Portsmouth. Typical of Maine, folks were more or less polite.

Inside, the crowd was primed to hear Obama. Each step in the program raised the anticipation in the Expo until Obama came in.

He threw out political praise to Maine Democrats. Gov. John Baldacci was “one of the finest governors in the country.” Portland Mayor Nicholas Mavodones Jr. was “your outstanding mayor.” U.S. Reps. Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree were “two great champions for Maine.”

He joked about the staunch opposition to the bill. House Minority Leader John Boehner called the bill “Armageddon,” Obama noted.

“After I signed the bill, I looked around ” he paused, to laughter and cheers.

“I looked up at the sky to see if asteroids were coming.” More laughter.

“I looked at the ground to see if cracks were opening. Turns out it was a pretty nice day. Birds were still chirping. Folks were strolling down the street. Nobody had lost their doctor, nobody had pulled the plug on Granny.”

The crowd broke into applause about 20 times, as Obama hit key points, sometimes with stirring rhetoric, such as his speech’s finale.

“What this fight has taught us about ourselves and about this country is, it’s so much bigger than any one issue. It has reminded us that change is never easy, but is always possible. It reminds us that in the United States of America, we still have the power to shape our own destiny. It has reminded us that we, as a people, don’t shrink from a challenge.”

As he did during the visit to Portsmouth, Obama challenged Republicans, who he said were talking about repealing the law.

“My attitude is, ‘Go for it,’ ” he said.

In many ways, that’s what this tour stop was about. There was an element of explanation about what’s in the bill. There was a laying out of next steps, a focus on job creation. But there was also a shoring up of the base.

Many Americans are unhappy with the law, as are many members of Congress. Resistance hasn’t gone away. And this victory tour is, in part, a response to that, an effort to motivate supporters.

However, the question remains: Why Maine, a state that Obama carried with 57 percent of the vote?

That’s obviously a consideration. Portland provided a supportive, enthusiastic audience.

There’s also the fact that Karen Mills of Brunswick heads the federal Small Business Administration, and 97.4 percent of Maine’s work force is employed by small businesses. He’s making the pitch that health care reform will particularly help small businesses. So those factors add up.

Was there an olive branch to all of this?

In August, when some Republicans were still working with Democrats on the bill, Obama mentioned Maine Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe at his address in Portsmouth.

In Nashua in February, at a time when the parties had less to say to each other, there was no such mention.

But Thursday, Obama said the health care reform law contained ideas from both Republicans and Democrats, and he mentioned Snowe by name, calling her “someone I consider a friend.”

Baldacci noted in an interview before the speech that Maine has been fairly aggressive in experimenting with health care initiatives, and with establishing regulations for insurance companies. The governor wasn’t sure why the president picked Maine for the latest stop on the victory tour.

But he had a thought: “Maine is being recognized.”

 

Staff Writer Matt Wickenheiser can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:

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