Fired Up? The Grass-roots Health Care Battle

Fired up? Ready to go? You might not know it from the way President Barack Obama's grass-roots supporters have been largely drowned out in the raucous debate over his health care plan.

Yes, they're behind him, officials say _ volunteering in their communities and contacting lawmakers in Congress. But some Obama organizers are calling their forces a "silent majority," embracing Republican terminology of long ago. And if the final legislation doesn't include a government run plan to compete with private insurers, they may be invisible, too.

While opponents of the health care revamp have largely controlled the image war with rowdy town halls and a huge march on Washington last month, Obama supporters have been mobilizing across the country as well, tapping into the unprecedented network his presidential campaign built last year.

"We're building a long-term organization with leaders in the community who are trained. It was successful in the election and it will be successful again," says Jeremy Bird, deputy director of Organizing for America.

OFA, the pro-Obama effort annexed to the Democratic National Committee, says it has enlisted more than 2 million people in active support of the plan since the beginning of the summer. It recently completed a 19-stop cross country bus tour, and leaders say they have held over 18,000 health care events in all 50 states and 435 congressional districts.

The intensity of such efforts is difficult to gauge, particularly when compared to the angry town hall meetings across the country over the summer and the "tea party" march that drew tens of thousands to Washington. A flood of questions at one recent OFA meeting in New York suggested it's far easier to ramp up the campaign to defeat the plan, even if proponents are turning out in the large numbers OFA claims.

What, some in the group of 50 or so pro-Obama volunteers asked, are the specifics of the health care bills moving through Congress? Do they all include provisions for end-of-life counseling, which led to the erroneous "death panel" accusations leveled by some Republicans? And will Obama stand firm on the federal insurance option to compete with private coverage?

"Where can we get the information to speak intelligently and cogently about it?" Queens resident David Dawson asked about the plan. Others complained that Obama had waffled on the federal "public option" and suggested they might not get involved in helping push for the overhaul as a result.

Organizer Geoff Berman acknowledged the concerns but urged attendees to focus on other aspects of the plan, including the central provision to keep insurers from refusing coverage because of pre-existing conditions.

"There are other important parts of the health care legislation President Obama doesn't want to be lost on people by the entire dialogue being about the public option," Berman told the group.

However, Howard Dean, the former Democratic National Committee chairman and 2004 presidential contender, said the public health care plan is essential to motivating the party's base voters.

"It has to be there. Without the public option, it's going to be very hard to organize Democrats," Dean said in an interview.

To be sure, not everything is harmonious on the anti-overhaul side either as mainstream Republicans and disaffected conservatives jostle for advantage.

After electoral wipeouts in 2006 and 2008, the Republican National Committee has used the health care debate to help build state parties and increase GOP membership. It's also proved an effective fundraising tool, with the RNC adding more than 2,400 donors a day in September, up from just under 400 per day in February.

But the most visible anti-revamp organizing has been done by conservatives who say they are fed up with both political parties in Washington. Many stayed out of the 2008 presidential race because they'd grown disillusioned wit George W. Bush and were never much excited about GOP nominee John McCain.

These people have been drawn to the tea party protests largely organized by FreedomWorks, founded by former GOP House Leader Dick Armey. FreedomWorks and affiliated groups such as the National Taxpayers Union have adapted organizing tactics pioneered by the political left, many of which were well executed by the Obama campaign last year.

Spokesman Adam Brandon said all staffers are given a copy of "Rules for Radicals," the famed community organizing manual penned by the late activist and author Saul Alinsky. Brandon said most of the group's agenda is dictated by the grass roots.

"We've done a fantastic job of organizing, and we want to have an influence on the political process _ health care, cap and trade (energy) legislation and next year, a midterm election," Brandon said. He added that his group is largely disdainful of the RNC's efforts and blames Republicans and Democrats alike for excessive government spending and debt.

"RNC strategists don't know what's going on and wouldn't understand if they tried," Brandon said. "If Michael Steele were to come and say how much Republicans had promoted liberty in the last eight years, people would laugh."

Debbie Dooley, a FreedomWorks volunteer in Georgia, said she got involved after last year's federal bank bailout and is now doing most of her organizing around local tax matters and opposition to health care reform.

"To build a grass-roots army and keep them energized, you have to address all the issues," Dooley said

Such efforts have been dismissed by many Democrats as fake grass roots, or "astroturfing." And pro-Obama organizers say that while their campaign may lack the intensity of the anti-Obama forces, it is more strategic and just as committed. No one would expect the exuberance of the president's "fired up" 2008 election rallies.

At a coffee shop outside Columbus, Ohio, recently, about 20 pro-Obama volunteers phoned through long lists of local Democratic voters, asking them to press members of Congress to support the president's plan.

"We realized that we need to have Obama's back," said Peter Kovarik, an adjunct biology professor at Ohio State University and OFA volunteer who said his job didn't provide health insurance.

Volunteers like Kovarik are giving voice to the "silent majority" that supports Obama's plan, said Ohio OFA director Greg Schultz.


Associated Press Writer Meghan Barr in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this story.