Obama Taps Volunteers For Health Care Outreach

If the next few weeks are crunch time for health care legislation, an equally big test looms for the army of volunteers that Barack Obama assembled during last year's presidential campaign. While Obama continues his push for a health care overhaul in Washington, his grassroots political operation, Organizing for America, is trying to build support around the country.

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If the next few weeks are crunch time for health care legislation, there's an equally big test looming for the army of volunteers that Barack Obama assembled during last year's presidential campaign. While the president continues his daily push for a health care overhaul in Washington, his grassroots political operation known as Organizing for America is trying to build public support around the country.

NPR's Mara Liasson reports.

(Soundbite of telephone)

DAVID: Hi, my name is David. I'm a volunteer of Organizing for America.

MARA LIASSON: That's what it sounded like at a phone bank in the Washington headquarters of the Democratic National Committee this week.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

LIASSON: National volunteer coordinator Gillian Bergeron gave instructions to her troops.

Ms. GILLIAN BERGERON (National Volunteer): Today we're calling about health care. Specifically we're going to worry about Maine and just ask people if they will support Obama publicly. If they say they're willing to support him publicly, then we'd like to encourage them to call their senators.

LIASSON: Tonight the phone banks' targets are the moderate Republican senators from Maine - Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins. But Organizing for America is also training its fire on wavering members of its own party, using TV ads like this one.

(Soundbite of TV ad)

Unidentified Man #1: It's time.

Unidentified Woman #1: It's time.

Unidentified Man #2: It's time.

Unidentified Woman #2: It's time for health care reform.

LIASSON: The text on the screen says, Call Your Senator. And the ad is running in states like North Dakota, Arkansas, Florida, and Nebraska, states represented by moderate-to-conservative Democrats who are considered the key swing votes on the issue. During the presidential campaign, the Obama grassroots movement had a simple goal: turn out voters on one day for one man. Now it's trying to do something much more difficult: help the president pass a complicated and controversial overhaul of the nation's entire health care system. Mitch Stewart is the director of Organizing for America.

Mr. MITCH STEWART (Organizing For America): This is not an election. During the campaign, it's very easy to judge progress. There's an election day and you work backwards from that. And everyone understands that.

LIASSON: Now OFA is trying to activate a mass movement in support of the health care overhaul before there's even an actual bill on the floor of either the House or Senate. The goal, says Stewart, is simply to keep the process moving forward and to make sure that members are hearing from the president's supporters back home.

Mr. STEWART: We had thousand events last week where canvases, phone banks, town halls, people engaging in health care, and then, you know, part of what we had to do is make sure we facilitate that sort of energy and activism that's happening in communities across this country, so that are leaders here in Washington know that there is a huge amount of support for supporting the president's plan.

LIASSON: Democratic strategist Jim Jordan says OFA is trying to do something no president or political party has done before.

Mr. JIM JORDAN (Democratic Strategist): It's been a failure of conventional politics that we didn't engage people, even activists, even people who are deeply committed to politics and to public policy, only for a few months every two or four years. That's a waste, that's a waste of people's energy, attention. And the OFA is trying to fix that.

LIASSON: While OFA tries to fix that, there is also a growing grassroots effort on the other side. Groups opposed to President Obama's health care overhaul are also running ads and holding town meetings. Sara Taylor, the former political director in the White House of George W. Bush, admits that in this fight the pro-Obama forces have more resources. But she is not sure how big an impact this grassroots campaign can have on the health care bill.

Ms. SARA TAYLOR (Former White House Political Director): I think the challenge for any politician is that oftentimes people get engaged in campaigns in support of a candidate, in support of a personality, not on an issue. So you can't assume that his listed supporters all agree with him on health care.

LIASSON: That certainly was the case with at least a few of the people the Obama phone bankers reached on Tuesday night.

Unidentified Woman #3: We're calling tonight about the president's health care reform effort. And we're hoping that you'll join us in supporting the three core principles. Do you support them? Oh, I see. I'm sorry to hear that.

LIASSON: But even if Organizing for America is not able to move the needle on health care, Sara Taylor says the effort will reap dividends for the president and his party.

Ms. TAYLOR: It's a valuable exercise for the Democrats. They built a strong network of supporters in the last election. These are folks who care about President Obama, want him to succeed, and keeping them active and involved, it's a smart thing because it means that they're more likely to be active and engaged, you know, in an election year.

LIASSON: An election year in which Democrats will either be defending the health care legislation they passed or explaining why they didn't pass any.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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