President Obama hit Minneapolis like a political barnstormer Saturday, hammering at a health reform list that includes insurance for people with or without jobs, elimination of coverage caps, and his strongest endorsement yet for a public option.

"The time for games is passed. Now is the time for action. Now is the time to deliver on health care for every American," Obama said in a speech at Target Center, drawing the loudest cheer of his 42-minute pep talk on overhauling the nation's health care system.

About 17,000 people packing Target Center roared their approval again and again at a rally reminiscent of Obama's run-up to the presidency last year. After he entreated them to amplify his message on reform, thousands of jazzed supporters walked away repeating the chant made famous during his campaign: "Fired up! Ready to go!"

The rally and others that are expected to follow this week could provide a powerful visual counterpoint to the negative images that emerged over the summer at congressional town hall meetings across the country, at which critics turned out in droves. In Washington, anti-tax crowds turned out for their own rally decrying the president's health reforms and other federal spending.

Minneapolis was the first stop in what some regard as Obama's final and crucial push to make a deal with Congress and the public on health care -- an effort that began with his address to Congress on Wednesday night.

'Stable and secure'

Saturday's speech, clearly aimed at the middle class, seemed designed to convince the 180 million Americans who have health insurance that they, too, stand to gain from changing the status quo. The electronic banner that wrapped the arena summarized it: "Stable and secure health care."

Before and after the 1 p.m. speech, the crowd -- in typical Minnesota fashion -- was orderly and largely peaceful. But the verbal shouting matches that broke out reflected the intensity of emotion that has become the hallmark of the health care debate.

As the crowd streamed out the arena doors, some confronted a group of protesters that had gathered outside. Pointing fingers across the barricades, Obama's supporters shouted, "Shame on you! Shame on you!" The protesters responded with, "Drink the Kool-Aid! Drink the Kool-Aid!"

Obama was relaxed, confident and casual in a crisp, checked shirt, apparently happy to be back in one of his best venues -- an arena full of cheering fans.

He said in his speech that a report from the Treasury Department warns that nearly half of all Americans younger than 65 could lose their health coverage at some point in the next decade. That followed a Census Bureau report made public last week that showed that the number of people who do not have health insurance increased from 45.7 million to 46.3 million in the past year.

"These are people who are working every day," Obama said. "These are middle-class Americans."

Clear about the public option

While Obama entered and exited the stage to "Hail to the Chief," the official visit had the feel of a campaign rally, minus the signs. He was greeted with chants, and ended the speech with a nearly 10-minute-long retelling of how his campaign adopted the "Fired up! Ready to go!" motto before he was nominated.

The president again repeated his support of health insurance exchanges that would allow individuals and small businesses to create health insurance buying pools. The plan, which he described to Congress on Wednesday, would allow them to negotiate for lower prices just as big businesses and governments do.

Obama said that exchange would not be, "contrary to what folks say, some government takeover of health care." But, he said, the exchange might not make health insurance affordable to all, so the federal government will provide tax credits.

Then he added, to huge applause, "I think one of the options should be a public insurance option.

"Let me be clear, it would only be an option. Nobody would be forced to choose it. ... What it would do, is it would provide more choice and more competition."

That public option, which has yet to be fully defined, has been described as a deal-breaker by Republicans, and has been the focus of the health insurance industry's efforts to defeat proposed reform.

Obama said that he wanted bipartisan support for the plan, but he added, "I'm not going to back down from the basic principle that, if Americans can't find affordable coverage, we're going to provide you a choice."

Star Tribune staff writers Pat Doyle and Kim Palmer contributed to this report. • 612-673-7394 • 651-292-0164; • 612-673-4388