TITLE CARD: Summer 2009
NARRATOR: At the White House, they struggled to make sense of what had gone wrong.
RYAN LIZZA, The New Yorker: He came into office with a very naive view of politics and very quickly was reeducated, right? And I think he would say that probably his biggest misunderstanding about American politics was that it wasn’t polarized. It was literally the essential characteristic of American politics.
NARRATOR: By late summer, the president saw the polarization grow to include Republicans who were supporting what was now being called “Obamacare.”
SARAH PALIN: So how’s that hopey, changey thing working out for ya?
PETER BAKER: Health care became not just a lightening rod but a driving force behind this movement. The specifics almost didn’t matter at that point, it was just sort of─ you know, just the very name “Obamacare” was enough to generate deep anger and upset and resentment.
Rep. MICHAEL BURGESS (R-TX): Boom, the summer town halls literally blow up in our faces. The fat really hit the fire when we went home in August for what usually is a fairly leisurely stroll through the district.
NEWSCASTER: The surprise is just how out of hand these town hall meetings are getting.
Rep. MICHAEL BURGESS: A town hall here─
PROTESTER: Baby killer! Abortion is murder!
Rep. MICHAEL BURGESS: ─a summer parade there, an ice cream social here. No, it was all health care all the time. And people were─ were red hot about it. It was a radioactive issue all summer.
FRANK LUNTZ: I never saw town halls like this. Normally, 50 people would show up─ 500 were coming. In places you would have 200 people, they’d have 1,500 people there. And they were all angry and they were very aggressive. They were informed. They were educated. They were persuasive and aggressive, which made for perfect television coverage.
TOWN HALL PROTESTER: I’m not a lobbyist with all kind of money to stuff in your pocket!
ERIC CANTOR: People who had never been involved in politics before all of a sudden were now speaking up. “Hey, wait a minute. I didn’t elect this president. I didn’t think that Washington should take my health care from me.”
TOWN HALL PROTESTER: ─and the rest of your damned cronies up on the Hill!
NARRATOR: They were furious at Republicans who had worked with the president, like Senator Charles Grassley.
TOWN HALL PARTICIPANT: Thank you, Senator Grassley. My question’s on Medicare, and you’re working with─
Sen. CHARLES GRASSLEY: I had people come to my town meeting with sheets of paper that thick off the Internet and quoting from the bill. You know, I’ve never had that happen before. People were up on it, and people didn’t like what they were reading.
TOWN HALL PROTESTER: Democrat or Republican or whoever, senator or congressman vote for this bill, we will vote you out! [cheers]
PETER BAKER: And suddenly, the idea of cutting a deal with President Obama no longer looked like it was good politics, no longer looked like it was good policy.
Sen. CHARLES GRASSLEY: There’s a bill out of the House of Representatives put together under Speaker Pelosi’s leadership. I’m─ I’m─ [boos] I am─ I’m─ I would not vote for that. [cheers and applause]
PHIL SCHILIRO, Obama Adviser: The ground was shifting for Republicans, to have a very difficult time with their base. And so it became politically toxic for a lot of Republicans to be associated in any way with the president.