PORTLAND, Maine — Speaking to a capacity crowd of enthusiastic fans, President Barack Obama on Thursday paid triumphant tribute to the hard work and dedication of lawmakers, business owners, activists and ordinary families who stayed the course throughout the contentious yearlong political process of enacting national health care reform.

“When the pundits were obsessing over who was up and who was down, you never lost sight of what was right and what was wrong,” Obama told an audience of about 2,500 jubilant supporters at the Portland Expo. “You knew this wasn’t about the fortunes of any one party — this was about the future of our country.”

Referring to a new round of what he called “fear-mongering and overheated rhetoric” that have heightened fear and anger about the effects of the health care overhaul since he signed it into law last week, he urged skeptics to give it time to take effect.

“It’s only been a week,” he said. “Before we find out if people like health care reform, maybe we should wait until it actually happens.”

He pointed out a number of initiatives that will take effect this year, including new consumer protections for adults and children with private health care coverage, tax incentives for small businesses that provide insurance for their workers, and a $250 rebate for senior citizens whose prescription drug costs send them into a coverage gap in their Medicare plans.

Other elements of the overhaul will roll out over the next four years, including more stringent regulation of the health insurance industry, individual and employer mandates, new health insurance marketplaces aimed at stimulating competition and driving down monthly premiums, new taxes on upper income earners, and changes in Medicare spending.

“This reform will not solve every problem with our health care system. It will not bring down the cost of health care overnight. We’ll have to make some adjustments along the way,” Obama said. “But it represents enormous progress. It enshrines the principle that every American should have the security of decent health care, that nobody should go bankrupt because they get sick or have a child with a pre-existing condition.”

The crowd at the Expo, though overwhelmingly friendly to the president, contained a handful of naysayers. At one point a heckler shouted out, “You lie,” echoing the outburst last fall of U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., during a presidential address before Congress.

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On Thursday, Obama drew laughs when he acknowledged the heckler with a quip: “The same people who were hollering about [health care reform] before it passed are still hollering,” he said.

Though there were a few other shouted comments during his appearance, no skirmishes erupted and no one was asked to leave the event.

The president thanked Democratic Reps. Mike Michaud and Chellie Pingree of Maine for supporting health care reform. He credited Sen. Olympia Snowe for contributing many elements aimed at drawing the support of congressional Republicans, and although that support failed to materialize, he said he considers Snowe a friend.

He recognized some Mainers in the audience, including Theresa D’Andrea of Limerick, whose husband died earlier this month, leaving her with a debt of $60,000 after reaching a lifetime limit on his health insurance coverage. Such limits will be abolished under the new law, Obama noted.

Before Obama took the stage, the U.S. Small Business Administration’s director, Karen Mills of Brunswick, told the audience that health care reform is “one of the most important pieces of legislation we’ve had in decades.” Mills said the reform “is going to be good for kids, it’s going to be good for seniors, and it’s going to be really good for Maine’s 35,000 small businesses.”

The midafternoon event at the Expo attracted numerous state officials, including Gov. John Baldacci and members of his Cabinet, many Democratic state lawmakers, and former Maine governors Angus King and Joseph Brennan.

Republican lawmakers were conspicuously absent. Maine’s Senate minority leader, Kevin Raye, R-Perry, issued a statement on Thursday welcoming the president to Maine. But he criticized Obama for failing to work effectively with members of both parties, including Sens. Snowe and Susan Collins of the GOP.

“By ramming his controversial health care bill through on a party-line vote, the president has polarized the nation and deepened the divisions that add to public cynicism,” Raye said in his statement. Snowe and Collins, he added, “have distinguished themselves by their ability to work in a bipartisan fashion. It speaks volumes that the president failed to work constructively with them and other Republicans to pass a bill that could have won support from both sides of the aisle.”

Many who attended had stood in line for several hours over the past two days, first to get tickets to the event and then to gain entrance to the Expo building.

Among them was 72-year-old Stefan Nelson of Westbrook. “I’m here as an American,” he said. “He’s our president. No matter what side of the aisle you’re on, all Americans should be celebrating this.”

Suzanne Kelly and 16-year-old Ben Claeson of Bangor, both active with the pro-health-reform group Organizing for America, were thrilled to have been invited to meet Obama in person.

“They called me yesterday and said to make sure I was wearing something businesslike,” said Kelly, who with her husband, Bob, owns the House Revivers business in Bangor. The fancy scarf she threw on at the last minute paid off when she got a photo taken with Obama as he was leaving the event.

Claeson, a junior at Bangor High School, seemed star-struck. “It was pretty crazy seeing him so close up,” he said.

Dr. Elisabeth Mock of Holden, president of the Maine Academy of Family Physicians, said she was glad to hear Obama acknowledge that more work needs to be done to improve health care in the U.S.

“We haven’t really started addressing the cost drivers in health care,” she said. “I am confident that more changes will come. But it will be fun in 20 years to look back and say we were part of this.”

Meg Haskell

Meg Haskell is a curious second-career journalist with two grown sons, a background in health care and a penchant for new experiences. She lives in Stockton Springs. Email her at mhaskell@bangordailynews.com.