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Can Obama Build A Grassroots Health-Care Movement?

As insurance companies and health-care conglomerates ramp up opposition to real reform, activists must build a real grassroots movement that forces Congress to do the right thing. On June 6, the Obama Administration is launching an effort to accomplish this. It is making its greatest push yet to use its “Organizing for America” operation to replicate the campaign-style activism that brought Obama the presidency, but that has been in short supply since the November 2008 election.


Former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe (pictured) is calling for a campaign of “reaching out to our neighbors, knocking on doors, serving in our communities, and building a grassroots network strong enough to win.” The stakes in this campaign are high. If Plouffe’s plans are realized, progressives will have demonstrated the capacity to build a successful grassroots movement around a core national issue, rather than a political candidate.

But if the former Obama volunteers and health-care activists ignore this and other calls to organize for real health care reform, progressives will have proven unable to mobilize outside elections, and will have themselves to blame for the watered-down bill that results.

While Howard Dean’s Democracy for America and other groups are attempting to build a national movement for meaningful health care reform, the entity with the greatest potential to recruit and mobilize volunteers has always been the Obama-linked Organizing for America. Obama’s personal popularity remains high, and those who worked hard on his campaign are far more likely to become active in a new venture backed by the President (especially when the June 6 OFA meetings will include a live phone call with the President).

The question is whether Organizing For America (OFA), like the Obama for President campaign, can actually build a grassroots movement. And health care is the best test, because if OFA cannot deliver on this powerful issue – and the odds are in its favor – it must be judged a failure.

Building a Health-Care Movement
I wrote soon after the November election that progressives needed an organization that could offer fulltime paid organizing jobs for Obama campaign activists eager to mobilize around universal health care and other key components of the Obama campaign agenda. The entity that eventually emerged, OFA, fell short of my expectations for two main reasons.

First, Plouffe announced that the group would not be pressuring moderate Democrats, thus insulating the group best positioned to kill meaningful health reform.

Second, the group planned to hire less than fifty fulltime organizers, and instead rely heavily on mobilizing via email. Obama’s presidential campaign showed the value of prioritizing trained organizers knocking on doors over volunteers clicking “send,” but OFA appeared to be taking a cheaper and less effective approach.

OFA’s Efforts To Date
OFA – lacking a specific measure to mobilize around – has yet to have a visible public impact. Plouffe claims that the group has initiated 9000 meetings to set priorities for health care reform, yet I had difficulty locating people who have attended such meetings.

But I was informed in March that my contrast between hiring organizers vs. relying on technology might have been overly simplistic. OFA had a group of former campaign organizers who were engaged in a significant level of strategizing via e-mail, so the group was not simply sending millions of messages to passive recipients. It was said to be involving more activists in drafting its mobilizing plans than is otherwise apparent.

I was glad to hear that. And when Plouffe now talks about OFA spending the summer making direct personal contacts, it seems that people power rather than technology will now carry the day.

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The Problem of Complexity
A national movement along the model of the Obama presidential campaign is essential because opponents have the greatest advantage one can have in public policy debates: complexity. Health care reform is so complicated that opponents can hammer on one or two changes (out of hundreds) to get people feeling uncomfortable about the entire package.

Overcoming this “complexity” strategy requires a person-to-person campaign that allows organizers to rebut false charges on the front stoop, or at a table in front of a supermarket, or with an ironing board at a shopping mall. Television advertising surely helps, but it’s disappointing to see so many progressive groups already trying to beat the insurance and health care industry on its own turf, rather than realizing that 30-second spots will not build public pressure for meaningful reform.

Complexity is the constant enemy of progressive change---which is why I argue in The Activist’s Handbook that progressive ballot initiatives must “Keep It Simple.” But in the case of reforming a deeply dysfunctional health care system, there is no politically feasible simple solution.

This makes it easier for opponents, and harder for progressives, to build mass support for a complex proposal most people will never fully understand. Yet if those concerned about health care are actually recruited and enlisted to action, the complexity problem will be surmounted (Before the letters start pouring in: yes, single payer offers the simplest and most effective solution, but no matter how many nurses get arrested and how many activists protest, this Congress is not going to adopt a single-payer system in 2009. Creating a state single payer option is the best that can be achieved this year)

National Issue Campaigns Outside Elections
Think how rare it has been for progressives to mobilize a national grassroots campaign to pass a federal law in the face of powerful corporate opposition. It never happened in the Clinton era, and one likely has to go back to the Lyndon Johnson years.

That’s a very long time ago.

Many Obama supporters thought he could change this dynamic, as his community organizer background showed him the importance of grassroots mobilizing for change. The enactment of a meaningful health care reform measure with a public option is the true test of whether Obama can end progressives’ over 40-year congressional drought, so we will be watching Organizing for America closely as it kicks off its health care campaign on June 6.

randy shaw

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the author of the new book, Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century (University of California Press)

Republished with permission from Beyond Chron

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