Blank Canvass

How can Obama get people to support a health care plan that hasn’t been written yet?

Canvass organizer. Click image to expand.
A canvass organizer

Megan Meagher works as an artist, but her canvassing technique at a farmers’ market in Richmond, Va., reveals the thinking of a game theorist. “Have you heard about President Obama’s plan for health care reform?” she asks. A decision tree sprouts. You have two options: Respond, don’t respond. Don’t respond, and you feel like a jerk. Respond, and you face another dilemma: Say yes, and you feel obliged to stop. Say no, and you acknowledge your ignorance—and thus feel obliged to stop.

When I make this point to Meagher, she smiles. “Real tricky,” she says.

That, in miniature, is the strategy behind the latest health care push by Organizing for America, the vestigial piece of the Obama campaign (its Web address betrays its origins) that now operates as part of the Democratic National Committee: Make America an offer it can’t refuse.

To that end, OFA has drawn up a list of three broad principles: reduce costs, guarantee choice, and ensure affordable health care for all. The goal is to get 1 million Americans to sign onto these three principles so that Congress will have no choice but to pass health care reform.

There’s just one problem. Actually, make that two. First, the principles are so broad that hardly anyone can disagree with them. And second, the bill doesn’t exist yet. As of Monday, four out of five House and Senate committees have drafted pieces of legislation that include a public option and prohibit denying coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. But the relatively moderate Senate finance committee favors health care cooperatives over a public option.

How all these details fit into OFA’s principles is not exactly clear. So the question is: How do you get people to support a health care plan even the broad strokes of which remain up in the air?

The solution so far is to paint Obama’s plan as uncontroversially as possible. The three principles—lower cost, more choice, insure everyone—are the health care equivalents of peace, love, and free puppies. But for OFA, universality is the point. Indeed, vagueness is Obama’s friend. “The legislative process is in the weeds, and sausage-making is like everyone says,” says OFA political director Addisu Demissie. “Not everybody understands the substance or the process.” Demissie cites two reasons to keep the conversation broad: You get people to commit to the principles, and you convey the urgency of the message. Better to mobilize the public sooner, even if the details are still hazy, than to wait for the final bill. “Taking the 30,000-foot view enables us to engage people on the front end,” he says. “Even if you don’t know how we’re going to create efficiencies, you do at least know the system is broken and the costs of not acting are higher than costs of acting.”

On a face-meltingly hot Saturday in Richmond, the strategy seems to be mostly working. One woman reaches for Meagher’s pen before Meagher even finishes her pitch. But the plan’s vagueness occasionally backfires. A Richmond man who calls himself Douglas declines to sign the sheet. It’s not that he doesn’t want universal health care, he says—he voted for Obama. “It’s so complex,” he says, “people have no idea what the hell is going on.” He’d rather not sign a piece of paper that doesn’t really say anything. “Do I believe everyone should be insured? Yes. Do I want a government plan with total control? No.”

Some passers-by are simply dismissive. A middle-age guy with a Bluetooth headset walks by. Meagher asks him if he wants affordable health care for all. Nope, he says: “Just for me.”

Canvassing is just part of what OFA is doing. It is also soliciting health care horror stories, holding media events like press conferences and town halls, and engaging members of Congress. The last part includes everything from phone calls to office visits to a new innovation in legislative harassment, the Tweet Your Senator tool. (Enter your ZIP code to send your representative an automatic health-care-related tweet.)

Nor is OFA campaigning in a vacuum. The Republican National Committee has committed up to $1 million in paid advertising in 33 states. Republican leaders may also stage town halls discussing health care during the August recess. And as Democratic leaders make villains of the insurance companies, the insurers are more likely to join the fight. *

But going into August, OFA has several built-in advantages. “The list,” for starters: the 13 million-plus Obama supporters who provided their contact information during the 2008 campaign. It also helps that people actually care about health care reform. In March, OFA canvassed, knocked on doors, and phone-banked in support of the president’s budget, with mixed results. It’s not surprising that people have trouble getting jazzed about the federal budget. But everyone has a health care story. Another advantage: As in a re-election campaign, OFA is in constant contact with the White House. Concerns from constituents get relayed, as do the most compelling stories.

Republicans, for their part, profess to be unconcerned—both about the campaign itself and its impact. “Americans don’t support health care reform that moves tens of millions of people off of their current plan and into a government-run plan,” says RNC communications director Trevor Francis. “OFA has had difficulty selling the president’s unpopular policies in the past and this time will be no different.”

There’s also the question of necessity. Obama already has a list of 13 million supporters. He commands a (mostly) loyal majority in Congress. Polls, while slipping, are still on his side. What will a few more thousand e-mail addresses accomplish?

OFA political director Demissie takes the long view. “It’s an organizing tool,” he says. “It’s not just for its own sake.” It helps the White House keep tabs on what people on the ground are saying. Plus, it keeps the debate fresh in people’s minds. How do you know if it worked? “You’re never really gonna know,” he says. “But what you do know is you’ve kept the issue alive.”

Correction, Aug. 4, 2009: This article incorrectly stated that Families USA is running ads against health care reform. The group supports reform. ( Return to the revised paragraph.)