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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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"I think we're getting somewhere," Baucus added. "I've got faith. . . . We've all said we want to give him a bill he can sign by the end of the year, and that's our goal. This is only August."

Blendon and other analysts say the Republican Party apparatus has been more agile in sowing doubts about legislation that would affect more than one-sixth of the nation's economy.

Confusion about proposed changes to the Medicare program, abortion coverage and the cost of covering up to 50 million uninsured Americans has not been effectively addressed by Obama and Democrats, he said.

"The president's focus was so much on 'bending the curve' and the impact on the economy," Blendon said, referring to Obama's two early arguments in favor of reform. "People in Topeka don't talk about bending curves; they talk about what's going to happen to their premiums."

White House spokesman Dan Pfeiffer said the Obama team is reprising a strategy that served it well through the protracted presidential campaign, responding to attacks in the same medium in real time.

"If it's a video attack, it's always best to respond with a video so people can line them up side-by-side easily on Web sites and blogs," he said. During the campaign, "hundreds of thousands" of supporters distributed the Obama materials to networks of friends and family members, Pfeiffer said.

It is less clear whether the tools of an election campaign aimed at selling one man will be as effective in governing in a complex world.

Conservative activists, though relatively small in number, have disrupted events held by Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter in his home state of Pennsylvania and by House Democrats in Texas, Maryland, Wisconsin and Ohio. Some have been organized by the group Conservatives for Patients' Rights, whose public relations team helped mastermind the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attacks against Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) in his failed 2004 presidential bid.

"The lesson of the Swift Boats was that you have to come out forcefully against anything that's not true and correct the record," said Democratic communications strategist Phil Singer. "The Obama team took the same approach during the campaign when people would go out and make spurious suggestions" about topics such as Obama's religion or place of birth.

"I wouldn't be surprised if we see" online testimonials, blog posts, Twitter messages, YouTube videos by Cabinet secretaries and "countless other vehicles that can help make the case for reform in a proactive fashion," Singer said.

Jeff Jarvis, director of the interactive journalism program at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism, said the White House video on YouTube that rebuts inaccuracies is important and effective.

Performing a "fact-check" role "adds value," he said. But he called the Obama video, which has the president describing his daily ritual of reading 10 letters from average Americans each day, "overproduced."

During the campaign, the Obama team "did these more intimate, personal videos, and they've kind of stopped," Jarvis said.

Staff writers Michael A. Fletcher and Shailagh Murray contributed to this report.

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