Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Obama administration Tuesday condemned opponents of its health care legislation for “manufacturing” public outrage across the country even as the White House and its allies prepared to wage their own public relations battle for vocal backers in scores of congressional districts in coming weeks.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs painted the efforts of conservative-backed advocacy groups as “astroturf” — suggesting the grass-roots opposition to the president’s health care plan was artificial.

Mr. Gibbs did not rule out speculation that the conservative groups were tapping into some public distress with the president’s plan, but Democratic Party activists said protests at town hall events across the country were more likely a charade organized entirely by vested interests in Washington.

The White House tried to diminish the opposition as both sides were gearing up for the most crucial and potentially perilous leg of the journey of the president’s signature legislative initiative. Mr. Obama had hoped to reach a resolution before a long August lull, during which advocacy groups could chip away at the support of the measure and members of Congress would have prolonged exposure to feedback from their constituents.

That hiatus has opened the door to a practice that has now become a staple of lobbying: getting voters to mouth the views of Washington interests directly to lawmakers back home. The public relations push is coming from both directions. Tuesday, a group that works closely with the White House, Americans United for Change, announced the latest in a series of television ads urging voters to back the health care plan and also worked to get voters to attend town-hall meetings to voice their support. At the same time Tuesday, the group formed out of the Obama campaign, Organizing for America, was launching radio ads in 19 congressional districts across the country to produce support for the president’s overhaul effort.

Late Tuesday, OFA organized a rally in Detroit, where Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. will travel on Wednesday, and asked supporters to show up to support the vice president and to counter “organized mobs.”

On the other side, the conservative Club for Growth announced it was launching a $1.2 million ad campaign.

The scope of the opposition effort is unclear, but the White House attempted Tuesday to downplay its critics by describing angry protesters who have appeared at town-hall events across the country as pawns of the Republican Party and their lobbyist allies in Washington.

The Democratic National Committee called the protesters a “mob” and said they believed people were being bused to events by “well-funded, highly organized groups run by Republican operatives and funded by the special interests.”

“I hope people will take a jaundiced eye to what is clearly the astroturf nature of so-called grass-roots lobbying,” Mr. Gibbs said. “This is manufactured anger.”

Of concern to the administration was video footage of large crowds shouting down members of Congress that were being posted throughout the day on YouTube and other Web sites. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, was shown as the target of shouting at during a transportation event Tuesday in Utica, N.Y. Another tape showed Rep. Steve Kagen, Wisconsin Democrat, trying to answer hundreds of agitated people in Green Bay, Wis., on Monday night.

Lawmakers in New York, Texas and Pennsylvania have been captured on tape under withering fire from protesters in recent days.

Tuesday’s debate centered on the question of how much of the outrage was genuine.

John Goodman, president of the conservative-leaning National Center for Policy Analysis, said he thinks the protests are real.

“There is no organized Republican resistance to what the Democrats in Congress are doing,” he said. “The Republicans are in disarray.”

After meeting with Mr. Obama on Tuesday, Democratic senators said they think the health care initiative is within reach. But the White House effort to sustain momentum could face a long slog as members of Congress return to their home districts for most of August.

After several polls released last week showed decreasing support for the White House plans, Democratic leaders began employing a more aggressive strategy. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, issued a press release blaming the public discontent on “extremists.”

The White House began suggesting that the images of protests were not what they appeared to be.

“The Republicans and their allied groups … are inciting angry mobs of a small number of rabid right-wing extremists funded by K Street lobbyists to disrupt thoughtful discussions about the future of health care in America,” said Brad Woodhouse, communications director for the Democratic National Committee.

The president himself has talked more than once about “disinformation” being spread by his opponents. The White House on Tuesday morning responded to a Web video linked to by the Drudge Report that it said was the latest example of scare tactics by opponents of reform. The video, posted by Pam Key, a 42-year-old mother of two and children’s book illustrator in Southern California who has created a Web site called Naked Emperor news, showed Mr. Obama purportedly talking about the elimination of employer-provided plans.

The video, which had been viewed 463,901 times late Monday since being posted two days earlier, also showed Democratic lawmakers saying that a public insurance option is the best way to incrementally move the U.S. toward a health care system run entirely by the federal government.

The White House issued a Web video of its own, posting it to its Web site and to YouTube, where it had been viewed more than 2,000 times late Monday. In the White House video, Linda Douglass, a spokeswoman for Mr. Obama’s health care reform office, said Mrs. Key was, in her video, “taking sentences and phrases out of context, and cobbling them together to leave a very false impression.”

Mr. Gibbs compared the protesters to Republican operatives during the 2000 election recount in Florida, saying the “Brooks Brothers brigade in Florida in 2000 appear to have rented a similar bus and are appearing together at town-hall meetings throughout the country.”

He said later that “there are groups that have spread out people across the country to go to these things and to specifically generate videos that can be posted on Internet sites, so that people can watch what’s happening in America.”

Liberal Web sites claimed that three conservative Washington advocacy groups were instigating much of the outrage: FreedomWorks, Conservatives for Patient’s Rights and Americans for Prosperity. Tax records indicate that among those bankrolling FreedomWorks is the right-leaning Scaife Foundation.

Max Pappas, a vice president for public policy at FreedomWorks, said the group was not responsible for a 10-page memo written by a Connecticut activist named Robert MacGuffie. Mr. MacGuffie, whose memo counsels activists to “watch for an opportunity to yell out and challenge the [congressman’s] statements early” in an event, said he and his small group have “no connection to FreedomWorks.”

Mr. MacGuffie said in an e-mail that his memo was “getting far too much credit” for the protests.

The dust-up has erupted as more than $50 million has been spent on advertising on the health care debate. Until now, most of the advertising has targeted opinion leaders inside the Beltway, said Evan Tracey, who monitors political advertising for the Campaign Media Analysis Group. But now, he said, that money is moving into television advertising and other efforts in the districts of moderate Democrat and Republican members of Congress.

From the right, Mr. Tracey said, will come efforts to compare a federal health care option to the bureaucracy of state motor vehicle departments. From the left will come ads that blast insurance giants.

“Rhetoric is going to be ratcheting up,” Mr. Tracey said.

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