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Obama Returns to Grass Roots to Influence Health-Care Debate

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), left, and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) emerge from a White House meeting on health reform.
Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), left, and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) emerge from a White House meeting on health reform. (By J. Scott Applewhite -- Associated Press)
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By Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 5, 2009

As public skepticism mounts about President Obama's plans to overhaul the nation's health-care system, the political team that got him elected is returning to the online world of grass-roots activism in an attempt to reclaim control of the debate.

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White House officials have begun a two-pronged Internet campaign, geared toward reenergizing Web-savvy allies who backed Obama last year and whose support will be critical in getting the health-care initiative through Congress. Meanwhile, the president tried to rally Senate Democrats over a seafood lunch Tuesday in the State Dining Room.

The new engagement by the White House comes at a time when Democratic lawmakers are fielding attacks on talk radio, in cyberspace and at appearances in their home districts.

In a new blog and video titled "Facts Are Stubborn Things," White House aides detail "disinformation" and "very deceiving headlines out there" on health-care reform. The message, e-mailed to tens of thousands of supporters, also encourages viewers to report anything "fishy."

Responding to a headline and video posted on the Drudge Report Web site, administration spokeswoman Linda Douglass says in the video: "They're taking sentences and phrases out of context and cobbling them together to leave a very false impression."

Obama appears in a separate, six-minute video on the WhiteHouse.gov Web site, recounting some of the personal stories of average Americans who "end up being a powerful motivator for me when we try to move this health agenda forward." Later this week, the administration plans to unveil a new Web site dedicated to rebutting criticism of far-reaching health-care legislation.

"They got caught up in the act of governing, and what health-care reform needs right now is the kind of campaign that only President Obama and his team can deliver," said Democratic consultant Steve McMahon.

"They've been caught slow," said Harvard University pollster Robert Blendon, who has tracked attitudes about health care for decades. "If you're not quick, your opponents get there first."

Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) has labored for months to forge a bipartisan bill, and he said the intensifying attacks are threatening to pollute that effort.

"It's hard when you have people like John Boehner saying you've got to shred the president's health-care plan over August, and you get these very shrill partisan statements from the other side," Baucus said, referring to comments last week by the House minority leader.

During the luncheon, Obama characterized enactment of a landmark health-care bill as one of the most important things the senators could do in their careers, according to one aide in the room. Baucus said that a bipartisan bill remains Obama's "predilection" but that the president expressed concerns about whether the goal is attainable.

Obama "wants results," he said. "He's not going to just keep negotiating something that's not getting anywhere. But that's a judgment call.


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