On Health Care, Obama Policymakers Tap Campaign's Network of Supporters

By Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 4, 2008

Barack Obama's incoming administration has begun to draw on the high-tech organizational tools that helped get him elected to lay the groundwork for an attempt to restructure the U.S. health-care system.

Former senator Thomas A. Daschle, Obama's point person on health care, launched an effort to create political momentum yesterday in a conference call with 1,000 invited supporters culled from 10,000 who had expressed interest in health issues, promising it would be the first of many opportunities for Americans to weigh in.

The health-care mobilization taking shape before Obama even takes office will include online videos, blogs and

e-mail alerts as well as traditional public forums. Already, several thousand people have posted comments on health on the Obama transition Web site.

"We'll have some exciting news about town halls, we'll have some outreach efforts in December," Daschle said during the call. And tomorrow, when he appears at a health-care summit with Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) in Denver, Daschle said, "we'll be making some announcements there."

It is the first attempt by the Obama team to harness its vast and sophisticated grass-roots network to shape public policy. Although the president-elect is a long way from crafting actual legislation, he promised during the campaign to make the twin challenge of controlling health-care costs and expanding coverage a top priority in his first term.

Daschle, who is expected to become the next secretary of health and human services, is waging the outreach campaign by marrying old-fashioned Washington-style lobbying and cutting-edge social-networking technologies. Although he has yet to be formally nominated, he has already met with more than 100 insiders, ranging from union leaders and the seniors group AARP to hospital executives and representatives of corporate America.

"In the last three days I've exchanged three sets of e-mails with him," said Ron Pollack, executive director and vice president of the advocacy group Families USA.

The Obama team, which recruited about 13 million online supporters during the presidential campaign and announced its vice presidential selection via text message, is now moving to apply those tools to the earliest stages of governing.

"This is the beginning of the reinvention of what the presidency in the 21st century could be," said Simon Rosenberg, president of the center-left think tank NDN. "This will reinvent the relationship of the president to the American people in a way we probably haven't seen since FDR's use of radio in the 1930s."

In seeking to translate its political skills to policymaking, the incoming administration faces potential legal and political pitfalls. It is not clear, for instance, whether Obama can legally use his list of campaign supporters in the White House; the database would probably become government property. So far, the transition team has gotten around that issue by encouraging people to register on its Web site, Change.gov. Those names and e-mail addresses go into a new database, which can be tapped to generate activities such as house parties, YouTube videos and viral discussions to rally support.

Daschle's telephone call, which was not open to the news media, and his speech in Denver tomorrow provide hints as to how the new administration might tackle major health-care legislation.

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