Barack Obama
President Barack Obama speaks about health care reform at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Thursday, March 25, 2010. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak) Charles Dharapak

IOWA CITY — President Barack Obama stepped up to critics of the new health-care overhaul in a campaign-style stop here Thursday, challenging Republicans to try to repeal the two-day-old law.

“My attitude is, go for it,” the president told hundreds of people at the University of Iowa Field House.

The president touted elements of the overhaul, from tax credits for small businesses to a subsidy for seniors’ prescription drug costs.

The old basketball gymnasium where 3,000 people jammed in to see the president is just a short distance away from where then-candidate Obama proposed his blueprint for health-care reform in a May 2007 speech.

That was just eight months before the Iowa caucuses.

Now, just eight months before the November mid-term elections, when Republicans are expecting to gain congressional seats and perhaps even a majority, the president has embarked on yet another campaign — this time to win public opinion.

Thursday’s event was clearly reminiscent of the campaign rallies the president held all across the state on his way to winning the presidency in 2008.

The crowd roared when he was introduced, and the president greeted them with the first half of the familiar chant that marked his campaign before the caucuses.

“Are you fired up?” he asked.

The president dropped words of praise for Iowans into his speech, noting eastern Iowans who had weathered the floods — also promising them he would be their ally as they recover — and the University of Northern Iowa Panthers basketball team’s upset of the Kansas Jayhawks last weekend in the NCAA tournament.

And he praised Iowans for adding to the grass-roots drive to get health reform enacted.

“This didn’t start in Washington,” he said. “It began in places like Iowa City.”

The president said the choice on health care is between embracing the new law’s benefits and siding with insurance companies.

“I don’t believe the American people are going to put the insurance industry back in the driver’s seat,” Obama said. “We’ve been there already, and we’re not going back. This country is ready to move forward.”

Critics of the new law protested outside the arena, many of them conservatives who waved signs.

“Iowans tried to tell President Obama and majority Democrats that their partisan approach to health-care reform was wrong,” Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Matt Strawn said in a statement.

The president tried at points to temper expectations for the law, saying it would be four years before some of it took effect. And he said people would still experience frustrations with health insurance. But, overall, the message was upbeat and celebratory.

People broke into chants of “Yes, we can” repeatedly, a staple of the campaign season. At one point, the president said, “Yes, we did.”

Scott McNabb, of Iowa City, said Obama’s speech was an effective response to critics.

“I think it’s a good answer to the Armageddon rhetoric from the other side,” he said. “He was very calm. He was very specific.”

Valia Dentino, of Moscow, praised him for trying to get bipartisan cooperation.

“I’m pleased we’re on our way,” she said.

The president was briefly interrupted by a critic, but not from a conservative. Instead, an Iowa City man wearing an Obama T-shirt interrupted the speech to complain about the lack of a public option in the new law, demanding to know why.

“Because we couldn’t get it through Congress,” the president responded.

Obama acknowledged the complaint more than once during his remarks but used the occasion to say the law isn’t an example of socialism, as the right claims, but is actually compromise legislation.

“This is a middle of the road bill,” he said.

The man, who later identified himself as Justin Feinstein of Iowa City, said he supported Obama during the 2008 caucuses but said he hadn’t kept his promise.

“If he’d pushed harder, he’d have the votes,” he said.