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Obama Forces Orchestrate Taking Back Town Halls

5 years ago
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President Obama, the former community organizer, got elected with the mother of organizing campaigns -- relying on grassroots and netroots -- and now his allies are moaning about "orchestrated" protests at health care town halls that target Democratic lawmakers back home for summer break.

"Clearly this is being orchestrated, and these folks have instructions," Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union." Last week, Durbin told me as he was leaving a White House meeting on health care with Obama that the protesters are "tea baggers" and "birthers."

Cable television is eating up the raucous town halls, this hot summer's hottest newest reality series.

No, of course I'm not condoning unruly mobs, disruptions, or threats of violence at these meetings. The use of Nazi imagery by Rush Limbaugh or anybody in a discussion about pending health care legislation trivializes genocide and should be deplored -- or better yet, not used in the first place.

I just want to make a point that all of a sudden "orchestrated" is a dirty word for some Democrats, even as they roll out their own pack-the-hall strategies through the Obama-controlled Democratic National Committee and its Organizing for America wing, working with reliable allied special-interest groups: MoveOn, AFSCME, SEIU, PIRG, Health Care for America Now (a coalition of progressive organizations), and Americans United for Change (another umbrella coalition).

OFA chief Mitch Stewart, in a Sunday afternoon e-mail to Obama's vast list, wrote with some hyperbole: "As you've probably seen in the news, special interest attack groups are stirring up partisan mobs with lies about health reform, and it's getting ugly. Across the country, members of Congress who support reform are being shouted down, physically assaulted, hung in effigy, and receiving death threats. We can't let extremists hijack this debate, or confuse Congress about where the people stand."

The White House put in place an audience-selection system for the president's Tuesday visit to Portsmouth, N.H., for a town hall -- where health care is likely to come up -- so it will be harder for protesters to get in. Folks had to register online by Saturday and, the White House says, only "a limited number of individuals will be selected" to attend. Last week, Obama's OFA Indiana operation also solicited supporters to turn out in advance of the president's visit to Elkhart.

A veteran Democratic organizer I interviewed admitted that Dems were surprised not so much by the big turnouts but at the fierceness of the attacks on health care reforms and the whipping up of anti-Obama sentiment.

"Their goal is to scare the pants off these swing lawmakers," the organizer said.

The White House/DNC/OFA rapid response apparatus was rusty and did not anticipate the predictable: that the thousands of details in the Democratic-authored health bills in the House and Senate would generate confusion about future coverage and benefits for those with private insurance and on Medicare. As those with health coverage know, the system we have now is confusing and takes some fortitude to navigate. Any proposed changes -- even in a mob-neutral environment -- would be a challenge to explain.

Obama addressed a lot of this in his Saturday address, especially about the end-of-life care provision in the House bill seized on by critics as promoting euthanasia. The measure would allow Medicare to cover an "end-of-life" consultation once every five years for a person with a life-ending disease.

"That is why it is important, especially now, as senators and representatives head home and meet with their constituents, for you, the American people, to have all the facts," Obama said.

"So, let me explain what reform will mean for you. And let me start by dispelling the outlandish rumors that reform will promote euthanasia, cut Medicaid, or bring about a government takeover of health care. That's simply not true. This isn't about putting government in charge of your health insurance; it's about putting you in charge of your health insurance. Under the reforms we seek, if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor. If you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan."

In a coordinated effort -- there are now two fronts -- the White House on Monday morning launched a slick, highly produced new website called "realitycheck" to give the Obama perspective on the legislation the Democratic lawmakers are writing.

Meanwhile, Stewart, over at OFA, is asking folks to stop by and see lawmakers in the district in August while "insurance companies and partisan attack groups are stirring up fear with false rumors about the President's plan." This OFA call to flood the offices of members of Congress is cleverly called "Office Visits for Health Reform."

The OFA has software that can customize each message, so I not only got a personal "Lynn" in my greeting, but instructions to call on my local lawmaker -- in my case, since I live in the District of Columbia, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton. Kind of a wasted e-mail, Mitch, since the Democratic-controlled Congress refuses to give Holmes a vote in the House of Representatives.
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