In the modern era, all presidents have to some degree used their office to promote themselves and their policies. The Obama administration, however, has taken the practice to new heights. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) last month unveiled a slick, $700,000 television commercial featuring crusty old actor Andy Griffith announcing that “more good things” are coming to seniors - thanks to Obamacare. Just add the O Force campaign logo, and the advertisement will be ready for use in the 2012 presidential race.
That has worried Rep. Darrell Issa, California Republican, who last week issued a report that called into question the legality of the administration’s harnessing of government resources to advance a political agenda. The report describes how HHS last year slipped $392,600 in taxpayer funds to MIT economist Jonathan Gruber for “technical assistance” in formulating aspects of Obamacare. Without disclosing his place on the HHS dole, Mr. Gruber provided glowing commentary in support of Obamacare to outlets such as The Washington Post and New York Times. In January, the Gray Lady pointed out that Mr. Gruber had a contractual obligation to inform it about his conflict of interest, adding a disclaimer to his column online explaining, “Had editors been aware of Professor Gruber’s government ties, the Op-Ed page would have insisted on disclosure or not published his article.”
The deception was not aimed at just the biggest of old-media outlets. Even small online blogs and forums enjoyed the attention of presidential appointees practicing sock puppetry to create the false appearance of grass-roots support for administration policies. In 2008, the Justice Department tapped Tracy Russo, a former member of the John Edwards for President campaign team, to direct new media efforts. According to Mr. Issa’s report, Ms. Russo attempted in this role “to shape public opinion by searching online for articles, blogs or other entries critical of the Administration and then anonymously, or through the use of a pseudonym, posting comments to those sites attacking the author or contents.” Failure to disclose her government ties in this endeavor appears to run afoul of legal prohibitions against “covert propaganda.”
The Obama administration denies any wrongdoing while, at the same time, it refuses to hand over the information that Mr. Issa has requested in his role as the Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s ranking member. “The administration doesn’t deserve the benefit of doubt on this, and we don’t have the subpoena power necessary to make them provide this information,” Frederick Hill, communications director for the committee’s minority staff, told The Washington Times.
That could change in November. Should voters hand Mr. Issa the committee’s gavel, along with its power of subpoena, there is little doubt he could find out just how far over the line the presidential propaganda effort has gone.