Obama turns to internet in bid to sell his health care reforms

Author: By Stephen Foley in New York

Worried lieutenants are hoping to recreate the successes of his election
campaign by harnessing the internet to counter attacks such as the one
launched by the former Alaskan governor Sarah Palin, who said the
administration’s plans would set up “Obama death panels” which
would deny health care to the old and disabled.

The White House will this week launch a website dedicated to health reform,
filled with fact sheets and videos to explain the complex proposals drafted
on Capitol Hill. The aim of the legislation is to extend health care
coverage to the 40 million people in the US without insurance and to drive
down costs but Republicans have opposed most of the plans, saying it would
ration treatment.

Pro-reform lawmakers have returned to their constituencies nervous that the
increasingly incendiary language being used in the debate could spill over
into ugly scenes at town hall meetings over the summer recess.

Videos of angry constituents shouting down politicians have been posted on the
internet, along with pictures of demonstrations against reform, in what
Democrats have argued is an orchestrated campaign masquerading as a
grassroots uprising.

Rush Limbaugh, the right-wing radio host, said the health care reform logo
looked like a swastika and compared the Democratic House speaker Nancy
Pelosi ? an architect of reform legislation ? to Adolf Hitler. One Senator
said he had received death threats for supporting the reform proposals. And
Ms Palin’s intervention ? via a message on her Facebook page ? only inflamed
matters over the weekend.

“The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby
with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so
his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level
of productivity in society’, whether they are worthy of health care,”
she said. “Such a system is downright evil.”

Mr Obama had to deny he was promoting euthanasia. In his weekly YouTube video,
he said opponents were resorting to “outlandish rumours” and “misleading
information” to thwart the best chance at reforming health care in a
generation. “As we draw close to finalising – and passing ? real health
insurance reform, the defenders of the status quo and political
point-scorers in Washington are growing fiercer in their opposition,”
he said.

Most Americans now disapprove of Mr Obama’s handling of health care and the
White House is haunted by the fear that reform plans could collapse this
year in the same way that they did in 1993 under Bill Clinton, hobbling his
nascent presidency.

For this reason, Mr Obama’s YouTube message also included a subtle but
potentially very important rebranding. Instead of talking about health care
reform, he called it “health insurance reform”, in an attempt to
neutralise claims that the quality of care could decline.

Linda Douglass, who heads the White House communications effort on health
care, promised that the new website would be launched within days. “People
are saying crazy things right now,” she said, adding that the debate
needed to become more “civil”.

On the Sunday morning talk shows, Democrats ran to the aid of Mr Obama.
Senator Richard Durbin, on CNN’s State of the Union, said the disruption of
town hall meetings was being carefully orchestrated by opponents.

“When there’s a group of people honestly sitting in the middle … and
someone takes the microphone and screams and shouts until the meeting comes
to an end, that isn’t dialogue,” he said.

But the disruptions have continued and uniformed police officers now attend
town hall meetings.

In Des Moines, Tom Harkin, the Iowa senator, was interrupted by the shouting
of people in the audience. At one point, a man yelled: “This is not
health reform, this is control, control over our lives.”

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