Amid White House concerns that it’s losing the message war on both its left and right fronts, President Obama on Thursday tried to rally his grass-roots army to regain momentum and redefine the battle for health care reform.
In a conference call with Organizing For America activists, the 13-million-strong grass-roots wing of his machine, Obama told supporters they must battle misinformation being spread by opponents of his plan, such as claims that the bills in Congress would cover illegal immigrants or amount to a government takeover of health care.
“Now, come on. We can have a real debate because health care’s hard and there are some legitimate issues out there that have to be sorted through and worked on,” Obama said. “The best ambassadors for true information, factual information is all of you. You have more credibility than anybody on television when it comes to your family members and your friends and your neighbors and that’s why you being involved is so important,” Obama told supporters.
For many Democratic activists, Tuesday call raised the question: What took the White House so long?
“I have no explanation for this,” said Joe Trippi, a supporter of the Obama plan and grass-roots activism expert. “I cannot figure out why they didn’t start the mobilization effort earlier and why it does appear that the right got the jump on it.”
Conservative attacks about rationing and “death panels,” however, are only half of the White House’s problems. In recent days, Obama’s own liberal base — and their powerful talk-show host allies — have opened a new front by attempting to define health care reform as the creation of a government-run insurance program. Without a so-called “public option,” it’s not real reform, they argue — even as White House officials have said that while a public plan is “the preferred option,” its not “the essential element” of a successful plan.
The dual fronts have left the normally silver-tongued Obama administration nearly stuttering with frustration. Asked about if the White House had failed to effectively galvanize its base, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs on Wednesday opened his answer with:
“Well, again, I’d — I think I would dispute the beginning characterization. I think, again, particularly at the events that you saw the president do, I don’t — I don’t think you noticed a lack of support for providing health care reform among those that were outside of the president’s events,” he said.
This isn’t the first time that the Obama machine has been ambushed in a message war by the opposition.
In the administration’s earliest debate over a stimulus bill, the White House messaging machine seemed to be humming along — until the Republicans found a wayward provision related to abortions and used their own powerful talk show host allies to begin driving down public support for the economic recovery package.
In that case, the president managed to slug his way through the rough patch and go on to win. The White House now needs a similar turnaround to preserve his chief domestic policy — and his supporters are anxiously awaiting the plan.
Ahead of the call, Organizing for America’s Pennsylvania Director Elizabeth Lucas said she hoped to hear the president’s take on the situation and to “talk about some strategy.”
It’s not that Obama’s grass-roots army has been standing idle.
Jeremy Bird, the organization’s deputy national director, can tick off a host of behind-the-scenes accomplishments: More than 1.5 million people have taken more than 3 million actions — including canvassing, phone banking and hosting local events — to promote the president’s plan.
More than a million people have signed a declaration supporting his top principles — lowering costs, providing more consumer choices, and expanding coverage. They’ve run advertising and, in a single August week, 60,000 backers of Obama’s plan made personal visits to their local congressional office to register their support for it.
There were some snafus along the way. Some conservative Democrats complained about the advertising, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein griped about all the constituents wandering through her door thinking they were going to have a personal visit with her.
But those problems didn’t represent major mistakes; they fell more into the category of routine hiccups that can occur in a big, national effort.
The real mistake, concedes Bird, was that “we didn’t tell that story very well” and the opposition “won the media.” Which, in today’s overheated 24-hour news cycles, can count for plenty.
A Gallup Poll last week found that 69 percent of Americans were watching the anger-ridden town hall meetings — and 34 percent of them said it made them more sympathetic to the anti-reform protesters, while just 21 percent said it had made them less sympathetic to the protesters.
“We were good students of his campaign, and we are using those tactics against him,” said Brendan Steinhauser, director of federal and state campaigns for the conservative Freedom Works.
Still, there are warning signs in the same poll for Steinhauser. Shouting down supporters of the plan was viewed by a majority of Democrats, Republicans and Independents in the Gallup poll as an “abuse” of democracy.
The backlash against the confrontational antics of some of the plans’ opponents at the town hall meetings could be a pivot point for the White House.
Lucas was stunned when she attended the first town hall of Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) and saw it devolve into shouts, boos and confrontational questions. “It was not a discussion. They made sure an honest debate did not take place,” Lucas recalled. “I knew we had a task in front of us.”
She said her volunteers and allied groups stepped up their canvassing and phone banking — and began showing up earlier to make sure a second town hall had a good showing of supporters who back the Obama plan.
In Maryland, Daniel Cochran-Smith, an Obama supporter, said he heard a conservative radio host call on followers to attend a town hall hosted by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md). He said to his wife, “We should go to that,” and they did.
Similar adjustments are being made in Virginia.
Brandyn Keating, Organizing for America’s state director, said the first town hall she attended was calm and polite. “You could hear a pin drop when people asked their questions,“ she recalled.
But shouting broke out at another, she said. Now, her volunteers are wearing similar colored shirts and holding small signs, offering a more reserved — and perhaps Southern — show of support that seems to have had a quieting influence on their adversaries.
Tactical adjustments, though, may get Obama only so far as he tries to push through one of the most aggressive domestic agendas in decades.
The historic promise of his 2008 campaign was an awakening of a citizen democracy that invites lots of voices into the big, political debates of the day.
To achieve that end, however, requires a lot more than color-coded shirts. It demands a level of sustained engagement that modern America typically avoids to chase newer topics and rages.
“The success of the campaign, I think, hurt them a little bit. I definitely felt at the time a sense of, ‘OK. We did it. We elected him. Our job is done. Now, he’ll take care of it.’”, said Trippi.
He also believes that moving Obama’s grass-roots base, which was bipartisan, into the partisan DNC was a mistake. “I understand the political and legal reasons they had to do it, but that makes it tougher,” he added.
As for the losing side, “our backs are against the wall,” said Steinhauser, which gives them plenty of motivation to come out and fight the White House proposals.
That intensity gap presents the greatest challenge to Obama.
The way Bird sees it, comparing the level of activity between a policy fight and an historic election isn’t a fair comparison.
Organizing for America still reigns as the biggest grass-roots movement in the nation — and its supporters are now beginning to outnumber opponents at more town hall meetings. Obama’s call to arms today could accelerate that trend.
“The engagement at these events? That’s democracy. Hopefully, that will be part of the August story, too,” he said