Obama Turns to Grass Roots to Push Health Reform as Debate Rages on Capitol Hill

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 24, 2009

CHICAGO. June 23 -- Daniel in Pueblo, Colo., considers doctors a luxury he cannot afford. Darlene in Marion, Ind., divorced her husband to qualify for treatment for hepatitis C. Mary in East Bend, N.C., says her family can manage only insurance that carries a $10,000 deductible.

Through thousands of personal stories like these posted online, President Obama is setting out to humanize the health-care debate and push Congress to pass serious reform. He aims to ensure, in the words of one White House adviser, "that we don't get sucked in by the Washington discussion."

The Washington discussion, focused on the high costs and uncertain results of competing proposals, is not going Obama's way. In search of momentum, the president and his troops are preparing for a prime-time broadcast Wednesday night and a weekend of grass-roots projects from canvasses to blood drives.

Turning increasingly to the tactics that carried him into the White House, Obama is entering what his supporters say will be the largest-ever issues campaign. He recently asked millions of campaign supporters for donations to help in the effort, as the Democratic National Committee deployed dozens of staff members and hundreds of volunteers to 31 states to gather personal stories and build support.

"All that you've done has led up to this," Obama advised his followers, "and whether or not our country takes the next crucial step depends on what you do right now."

In Chicago this month, Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, who is chairman of the DNC, called for a "sense of urgency" on health-care reform. He told volunteers, "We've got a moment right now, but the thing about a moment is you don't know how long it's going to last."

Kaine described Organizing for America, the successor to Obama's ubiquitous campaign network, as "muscle . . . outside the Beltway."

Yet it remains unclear whether that muscle will make a difference in the struggle over health care, Obama's toughest legislative challenge since reaching office. Such campaign tactics have not been tested in the policy arena, where clarity is elusive and success depends on the calculations of 535 elected representatives.

"The only way this could work is if they distort the facts," said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). "They want to rush this through before President Obama drops in the polls. What they don't seem to realize is they're causing him to drop in the polls."

Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution senior fellow and longtime student of Washington power, counts himself as a skeptic who thinks the Obama camp "may have oversold the possibilities of this." The work of legislating reform "has to be done in Washington, with the same sort of hard bargaining that always goes on," Hess said. "Essentially, it's hand-in-glove negotiating."

As the Obama team members plotted strategy, images of "Harry and Louise" -- the TV ad characters who became the faces of the successful industry challenge to Clinton-era health reforms -- danced in their heads. To prevent a repeat, strategists looked to campaign tactics.

Obama gained traction when he answered his critics head-on, when supporters talked with neighbors and when he took his show on the road and disparaged the ways of Washington.

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