Obama's Never Ending Healthcare Campaign
by Kenneth T. Walsh
The perpetual political campaign over healthcare reform is in full force in Washington
The perpetual campaign is running full blast. Republicans are campaigning against President Obama's healthcare plan as a dangerous example of excessive, hypercostly government. Democrats are defending Obama-care and branding the GOP as the "party of no." MoveOn.org and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee are urging Americans to support a government-sponsored health insurance option. Rock the Vote is kicking off a campaign urging young people to "demand healthcare now."
On issue after issue, every imaginable political organization, constituency group, and self-styled movement seems to feel it necessary not only to state its case but to wage an election-style campaign to advance its interests. The goal is to mobilize public opinion and take on the opposition, often by using hype, distortion, negativity, and name calling.
What the ax grinders tend to miss, however, is that the techniques of a modern campaign--which include harsh television ads, hard-hitting speeches, and divisive rallies--are poor substitutes for uplifting themes that people can identify with and rally around. Instead, the perpetual campaign makes everything seem political, which turns off everyday voters who want pragmatism and compromise. Obama made this point in his address to Congress on healthcare last week when he condemned "the same partisan spectacle that only hardens the disdain many Americans have toward their own government. "
Over the years, the White House has led the way into an increasingly intense campaign mode, regardless of party. President Ronald Reagan had a knack of going directly to the people through Oval Office addresses and other speeches to mobilize support for his policies. President Bill Clinton moved to a more sophisticated and sustained approach, using a highly focused "war room" in an office building next door to the White House to coordinate his administration's PR and political efforts. President George W. Bush moved to an even more intense level. Karl Rove, Bush's political architect, always tried to stay a step or two ahead of the Democrats by coordinating strategy closely with the Republican National Committee under then Chairman Ken Mehlman.
Now Obama is attempting to take the perpetual campaign to another plateau. His speech to Congress, while it sounded conciliatory notes, still used the bully pulpit to urge Americans to rally around Democratic healthcare proposals. As a follow-up, Democratic strategists are planning another round of presidential speeches, rallies, and town hall meetings. Among them there was a rally Sunday in Washington by Americans United for Health Care, a group supporting a government alternative to private health insurance.
Meanwhile, the Democratic National Committee is attempting to graft Obama's grass-roots network that began during his campaign, now called Organizing for America, onto its national operation. The Obama network has an estimated 13 million members who receive E-mails and other communications from Team Obama via barackobama.com and, separately, through the official White House website, whitehouse.gov. OFA aims to pressure members of Congress, using grass-roots methods in their home districts and states, to adopt Obama's proposals. The effect of that effort won't be known until votes are taken in the House and Senate, but the potential is vast.
For their part, the Republicans in Congress and in the party organization are heavily invested in campaigning against Obama-care. They regularly issue broadsides against the Democrats' plans, and conservatives, especially the hosts of radio and television shows, have been urging Americans to protest at Democratic legislators' town hall meetings this summer.
It's a good bet that these campaign techniques will be used on other major issues in the coming months, including legislation to limit climate change, revise immigration laws, alter the tax code, and set policy on Afghanistan and Iraq.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs says a big reason for the trend is the media's preoccupation with gamesmanship. "The media have covered healthcare and other issues like a campaign," with polls every few days, an emphasis on conflict, and continual assessments of who's ahead and who's behind, Gibbs says. "But that's not the way the American people keep score," he adds.
Obama advisers say voters have little interest in rhetoric and posturing. The problem is that the political establishment hasn't gotten the message.
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