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Obama Turns to Grass Roots to Push Health Reform

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.

Organizing for America has become the DNC's largest department, Kaine said. With paid staff members in 31 states and control of the heavily trafficked campaign Web site, OFA is now trying to do something new: Become a force on a big and complex legislative initiative.

Mindful that supporters will not agree on all details, Obama has distilled his position to three principles: reduce cost, ensure quality and provide choice, including a public insurance option. As for the details, Obama's troops are asking supporters to trust the president's judgment.

So far, roughly 750,000 people have signed a pledge in support of the principles, 500,000 have volunteered to help, and several hundred thousand have provided their own story for the campaign's use, according to the DNC. Team Obama's hope is that the personal accounts will trump warnings from critics that the president's plan is too costly and too heavily influenced by government.

Then there are the workers and volunteers, including 300 recruited to spend the summer working alongside paid staffers, much like last summer's 3,000-plus Obama Organizing Fellows. The calculus is simple, said David Plouffe, Obama's former campaign manager and an OFA adviser: "If the American people are demanding change and progress on something, it's much more likely to happen."

"Will there be the same number of people knocking on doors as Nov. 3? No." said Jeremy Bird, deputy director of Organizing for America. "Is it bigger, way bigger, than any other issue campaign? Is it enough to have a meaningful conversation? Yes."

One morning last week, Bird convened a daily staff meeting in a bland DNC conference room in Washington. Nearly two dozen young organizers sat around a rectangular table. Others joined by speakerphone, reporting on gatherings in such places as Hibbing, Minn., and Alexandria, La.

The training of the summer volunteers was just beginning, and Bird pointed out that OFA had released its first Internet advertisement -- a Virginia man explaining that he lost his insurance when he lost his job. Bird called the ad "one of what will be many."

Staffers discussed new tools on the organization's Web site designed to filter volunteers by the roles they are willing to play: Will they speak to a crowd? Make telephone calls? Share their health-care frustrations?

"It's about going out and building lists of people who are with us," Bird said later.

Whether that effort can shift votes or incite action on Capitol Hill remains to be seen. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), recalling the Harry and Louise ads, said the campaign beyond the Beltway "worked in '93 to stop reform and it's going to work this year to nudge reform forward."

Brown has appeared with Health Care for America Now, a progressive coalition that has raised more than $35 million in the past two years and deployed 120 paid organizers to 43 states. In April, the group staged 102 events. Last week, it launched ads in 10 states.

HCAN National Campaign Manager Richard Kirsch said the group considers health-care reform "a national fight," not a series of skirmishes over swing votes in Congress. When a prospective supporter strays, he said, the organization generates a hail of letters, calls and e-mails back home.

Obama linked his 2008 campaign with health-care reform in his e-mail to millions of supporters.

"Once again, victory is far from certain," Obama wrote. "To prevail, we must once more build a coast-to-coast operation ready to knock on doors, deploy volunteers, get out the facts, and show the world how real change happens in America."

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