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Politico Attacks White House for Using Bush Media Strategy for Obamacare

November 26, 2013

Despite the massive--and tightly scripted--Republican effort to dominate the media reporting about the troubled launch of the Affordable Care Act, slowly but surely success stories are beginning to appear in the headlines. Just this week, articles detailed the growing Obamacare enrollment momentum--and lives changed for the better--in Kentucky, California and other states. Meanwhile, the pressure on Republican-led states to accept the federal Medicaid expansion that would benefit their residents most continues to grow. And to help spread the good news to local media, President Obama and administration officials have been fanning out across the country.
And for reasons unknown, that approach is appalling to Carrie Budoff Brown and Reid J. Epstein at Politico. They criticized that "local strategy" as "unusually aggressive, even for a president on the ropes and desperate to circumvent the national media":

President Barack Obama has bungled HealthCare.gov so badly that he's told senior aides to not even try to win positive coverage from the national press.
Instead, they're going local.
In the past month, Obama and his Cabinet have hit nine of the top 10 cities with the highest concentration of the uninsured, while senior administration officials have held almost daily reporter conference calls in nearly a dozen states to challenge Republican governors who refuse to expand Medicaid.

But if that commonsense approach sounds familiar, it should. During the Bush administration's catastrophic rollout of its Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit, the President and his Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt used the same strategy. In case Budoff-Brown and Epstein had forgotten that, Leavitt emphasized that outreach strategy during his July Washington Post op-ed lecturing the Obama administration on how to manage the Affordable Care Act launch. The administration road show and-gasp-the dreaded "navigators" were all part of it:

With Part D, the education hurdles were also high. Before the program was implemented, only 21 percent of seniors had a favorable opinion of it, and 66 percent didn't understand what the reform would mean for them.
So we spent 18 months devising and implementing a campaign to explain the prescription drug benefit, prepare seniors as well as partners -- such as community groups, churches, pharmacies, insurance plans and state and local governments -- and then sign people up. A national bus tour supported each phase. The summer before enrollment (the same period that the ACA is in now) we logged more than 600,000 miles and visited 48 states. As secretary, I made 119 stops in 98 cities. I learned that with a program like the ACA, you can't count on Washington to sell it. You have to reach people where they live, work, pray and play.

And that outreach didn't end when the Medicare Rx program began. The President, HHS Secretary Leavitt and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Director Mark McClellan kept up the campaign, precisely because the Part D launch was such a fiasco. As I summed it up previously:

The nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) ruled that some of the administration's ads promoting the new program were illegal while others were misleading. GAO investigators also found that the White House illegally withheld data from Congress on the cost of the new law. The Congressman who crafted the bill soon left Capitol Hill for K Street, where he made millions of dollars annually as a heath care lobbyist.
The new federal web site allowing people to compare plans and prices was delayed by weeks, while just 300 customer service reps manned the phones to help new enrollees. Yet over six million people immediately lost their coverage, while hundreds of thousands more would be refused treatment because of malfunctions in the computer systems linking providers and insurers. In response to the mushrooming crisis, governors in mostly Democratic states spent billions to continue coverage for their residents, while the President pleaded with insurance companies not to cut off their current policyholders. Nevertheless, the White House sided with insurers and rejected bipartisan calls to delay the enrollment deadline even as public approval plummeted to 25 percent. It's no wonder John Boehner called the rollout of the President's signature domestic policy achievement "horrendous."

It's no wonder that Leavitt's message to the Obama White House in July was "HHS leaders need to hit the road" in order to get their message out.
But for Politico, that same approach in the face of the GOP's media playbook reflects a President Obama "thin-skinned about media coverage of his presidency and often frustrated by the White House press corps" instead looking to local media to publish "the same talking points that the administration repeats daily in Washington without much notice."


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Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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