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White House Mounts PR Blitz for Health Care Reform

Jun 7, 2010 – 4:46 PM
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Andrea Stone

Andrea Stone Senior Washington Correspondent

WASHINGTON (June 7) -- The White House and its allies are launching a massive public relations campaign to convince a skeptical public that its historic health care reform legislation is just what the doctor ordered. But some Democratic partisans say the PR juggernaut wouldn't have been necessary if the administration hadn't lost control of the message in the first place.

"Why is it that 60 percent of the public is confused about health care reform? Is it because they've done such a brilliant job communicating what the thing is about? Of course not," said Ted Marmor, author of "The Politics of Medicare," who was there at the creation of the health care program for seniors.

"It's an amalgam of lots of many different elements, not any of which coheres into a clear story line," Marmor told AOL News. "No wonder they have to sell it."

Polls show that more Americans disapprove of President Barack Obama's health care law than support it. Yet skepticism appears to be ebbing amid evidence that more want to give the reforms a chance to kick in before supporting their repeal or replacement.

Obama will make his own sales pitch Tuesday to an audience of seniors, and to ensure public patience doesn't wear thin, former White House Communications Director Anita Dunn and several other Democratic strategists with close ties to the president are forming two outside groups to advertise and do advocacy work on behalf of the health care plan.

The heavy hitters hope to raise $25 million from party donors, unions, foundations and others of like mind and will broadcast their message through two new tax-exempt groups. The Health Information Center will explain the intricacies of the new law as it is phased in between now and 2014. The separate Health Information Campaign will work the political side, answering Republican barbs about "ObamaCare" in this fall's election and beyond.

A memo by presidential pollster Joel Benenson being circulated by the Democratic National Committee makes clear why the administration is acting now. It says, "As misinformation about President Obama's health care reforms give way to Americans' real-life experience with it, voters are slowly becoming increasingly comfortable with the law and resistant to Republican efforts to repeal it."

Republicans, who hope to make big gains at the ballot box this November in part by campaigning against the health care law, dismiss the new public relations effort.

"Out-of-touch Washington Democrats' problem isn't their sales pitch for ObamaCare -- the problem is ObamaCare itself," said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Minority Leader Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio. "The American people don't want the higher taxes, higher costs, Medicare cuts and payoffs to Washington special interests. No glitzy PR campaign bankrolled by their special-interest allies will change that."

Evan Tracey, who tracks political and public affairs advertising, said the administration has a "branding problem" in which the derogatory "ObamaCare" label has drowned out efforts to explain what the law entails. He said that groups opposed to health care reform have spent $21 million in ads. Supporters have spent only $18 million, most of it earlier this year in "soft messages" that have been drowned out by the antis' "much harder and to the point" spots, Tracey said.

To regain the offensive, Obama will host a tele-town-hall-meeting Tuesday with seniors to tout the $250 rebate checks that those who have fallen into the Medicare prescription drug doughnut hole will receive this week. The event, which will include more than 100 watch parties nationwide, is part of a renewed effort led by Stephanie Cutter, a veteran Democratic communications expert who started at the White House last month as its go-to health care messaging guru.

After working for a year to pass the legislation, "we have moved into an entirely different front," said Nick Papas, who works with Cutter in the White House Office of Health Reform. He hinted that Tuesday's event is just the first of many to educate the public on the law's details.

"The president has been focused on implementing this legislation quickly, carefully and efficiently, and the president and his team will continue that work and continue to discuss this important new law," Papas said.

President George W. Bush's second-term domestic priority to reform Social Security -- what critics called privatization -- met with public disapproval similar to what Obama's health care plan encountered. Just as last summer's health care town hall meetings turned raucous, prompting many Democrats to skip them this year, Bush launched a high-profile marketing blitz to sell his ideas on changing the retirement program -- only to quickly pull the plug amid angry public protests.

Obama's outreach is different because it relies on outside groups in a more formalized way, said Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution.

"This goes beyond what past White Houses have done. It reflects a new stage of public engagement," he said. "They know they lost some of the early rounds of public opinion, and they want to make sure the public gives it a chance" as the law is phased in over the next few years.

A veteran Democratic strategist, who has worked on issue campaigns and didn't want to be quoted by name for fear of upsetting administration colleagues, said the coordinated campaign "by definition is suggesting that you didn't sell it the first time." He said that the scope of the campaign, which will employ about a dozen Washington-based staffers and a $5 million annual budget, "is an incredibly small amount of money in a sea of media noise," and that the best salesman for health care reforms is the president himself.

The White House and outside groups will work alongside separate information campaigns by such groups as Families USA and AARP.

Ron Pollack of Families USA told AOL News that his group is sponsoring road shows to help clear up confusion about the law. "Just the facts," he said. "A propaganda effort does not make sense."

Cheryl Matheis, AARP's point person on health care strategy, said she didn't learn about the new advocacy groups until she read about it in the media.

"Since I'm leading the implementation effort, that should tell you something about it," Matheis said. "It's good if people get information out there. It's important that purveyors of the information are credible, and I'm hoping they come across that way."
Filed under: Nation, Politics, Health Care
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