President Obama's former campaign apparatus is cranking up a full-tilt drive for passage of a health care overhaul this year, with organizers tapping his 13-million-strong e-mail list for donations to fund advertising, hire staff and even open election-style offices.
Organizing for America, the reincarnation of the Obama campaign that the president turned over to the Democratic National Committee after his election, reached out to supporters for their time and money to fight "special interest lobbyists and partisan ideologues" that may attempt to "water down" health care reform.
"Your contribution to our healthcare campaign fund is the vital first step that will enable us to hire the staff, open the local offices, train the volunteers, design and place the ads, and put all the other pieces in place we need to execute this urgent plan," Mitch Stewart wrote in the Organizing for America e-mail, asking, as officials did during the campaign, for as little as $5.
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Mr. Stewart, executive director of the group known as OFA2, calls it an "ambitious" effort that will take "a lot of resources" and uses the highly recognizable Obama rising-sun logo in his e-mails that take on the same urgent tone and hopeful rhetoric Obama loyalists find familiar.
The unprecedented campaign-style push comes as momentum is building on Capitol Hill to pass a health care overhaul. Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Thursday provided the first outlines of their planned overhaul bill, which would include a public health insurance entity to compete with private insurers and government subsidies to help lower- and middle-class families to buy health coverage.
Business groups also are saying they support reform. The National Federation of Independent Business, the small-business lobby that helped torpedo President Clinton's health care effort in the early 1990s, said it was ready to work with Mr. Obama on the subject. "Today, the status quo is no longer sustainable," NFIB President Donald A. Danner told The Washington Times in an interview Thursday.
The push from Mr. Obama on all fronts - the White House also sent its first e-mail to supporters using pointedly nonpolitical language - has surprised some with its intensity.
"There really isn't a precedent for this," said Peter Kastor, a presidential history teacher at Washington University in St. Louis. "It's really important and very telling to realize that it's showing up at this moment because when it comes to health care all bets are off. It says something they activate it on this issue, which has massive political challenges."
Mr. Kastor, who received one of the e-mails himself, said it answered a question voters of all political stripes were wondering after a grass-roots campaign helped give Mr. Obama a decisive victory in November.
On Wednesday, the White House sent its first e-mail on presidential letterhead, with Mr. Obama offering what he said were "encouraging updates" about his health care meetings and saying citizens can sign up to get informed about the debate.
"Reforming health care should also involve you," he wrote.
The president said Thursday during a town hall in Albuquerque, N.M., that he is confident Congress will get him a bill this year, but relinquished some of his power when it comes to its contents.
"It may not have everything I want in there or everything you want in there, but it will be a vast improvement over what we currently have," Mr. Obama said.
Despite a Democrat-controlled Congress and a friendlier business community, the organizing campaign apparatus is ramping up as if it expects an all-out battle to preserve the principles the president has outlined for a health care bill.
Mr. Stewart sent volunteers who helped Mr. Obama knock on doors and make phone calls during the election to a donation page that asks for more.
OFA2 says the money also will be used to host "local educational events" and to "bring constituent voices straight to Congress, and make sure real life stories are heard louder than the lobbyists' spin."
Mr. Stewart said in the e-mail that the fight that Organizing for America "was designed for" is now "here," adding that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's goal of getting a bill to the floor by July 31 is "only 79 short days away."
"For every deceptive pamphlet they send in the mail, we must have a volunteer going door to door, ready to have a real conversation and break through the spin," he said, adding the campaign is necessary to push back against "every lobbyist cutting deals in the back rooms of D.C."
As some Democrats push for a more progressive plan with elements the president has rejected such as single-payer or at least a public option, Mr. Obama has said he'll sign what Congress approves. As details are hashed out, that may put him in the tough spot of embracing a policy of taxing health care benefits which he attacked during the campaign.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, Montana Democrat, suggested the tax is one way to pay for health care reform, even though Mr. Obama portrayed the idea as unthinkable last year when attacking Republican rival Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
"It's a multitrillion-dollar tax hike, the largest middle class tax increase in history," a narrator accused in an Obama ad. "You won't find one word about it on his Web site, but the McCain tax could cost your family thousands. Can you afford it?"
Another Obama ad said Mr. McCain's plan amounted to "taxing health care instead of fixing it."
Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who was Mr. McCain's director of domestic and economic policy during the campaign, told The Washington Times the Obama attacks distorted the McCain positions to begin with, but now place him in a bind.
"In contrast to the McCain plan, this really is a tax increase, and he should watch his own ads," Mr. Holtz-Eakin said. "It's hard to come to any other conclusion than it was just a cynical partisan maneuver."
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs pushed back on a Tuesday ABC News report suggesting the campaign was advised not to run the ads for that very reason, saying he doesn't recall such a debate during the election season.
"The message that the president communicated in the commercials represents his opinion on this," Mr. Gibbs said.
Policy aides have said at various health care events that Mr. Obama remains skeptical about the taxing benefits idea, and Mr. Baucus has not committed to eliminating the provision that forbids taxing benefits but has said it must be on the table as Congress considers the bill.
Ralph Neas of the National Coalition on Health Care umbrella group said he's noticed Mr. Obama ratcheting up his efforts to make sure 2009 is the year. "Time is our most formidable foe," he said.
Mr. Neas added he wasn't worried Mr. Obama is taking a back seat to Congress, saying that his top policy aides are "very busy" working behind the scenes on the plan even though they aren't "running the show."
Mr. Obama's three principles for a bill include: bringing down rising costs of health care delivery; ensuring patients can choose their own plans and doctors; and making sure all Americans have access to affordable health care.
Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan, the ranking Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, said Mr. Obama must push Democrats "to make this a truly bipartisan effort," or the July 31 deadline is unrealistic.
• Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.