Salting the Sweets

WaPo basks in the glow of Obama’s health care mobilization effort

A front page Washington Post story yesterday gets excited about the fact that Obama’s incoming administration is beginning to implement the hi-tech organizational tools that his election campaign used so successfully. The specific news? Tom Daschle, who is expected to be Obama’s secretary of health and human services, held a conference call Wednesday with 1,000 supporters with an interest in health care, launching an effort to get citizens involved in the administration.

The article, written by political reporter Ceci Connolly, touts the salutary effects that such tools (and their accompanying grass-roots mentality) might have on health care mobilization, calling the effort “the first attempt by the Obama team to harness its vast and sophisticated grass-roots network to shape public policy.” And for the most part, seeing how an Obama administration is going to build its ground-up infrastructure—online and otherwise—is a welcome aspect of transition coverage:

The health-care mobilization taking shape before Obama even takes office will include online videos, blogs and e-mail alerts as well as traditional public forums. Already, several thousand people have posted comments on health on the Obama transition Web site.

It’s good news that Obama’s point people are beginning (or trying) to establish the organizational groundwork that helped create such political momentum during the campaign. Like Obama’s recent and frequent press conferences, these initial efforts, if sometimes more nominal than actionable, help demonstrate how the incoming administration will communicate with the public, and how those modes of communication might help to produce policy initiatives.

But Connolly dwells on this good news without examining its consequences more sharply. (She mentions that Obama may not be able to legally use his extensive list of campaign supporters in the White House, but stops there.) Reading the article, you get the inexorable feeling that this isn’t just good news, but great! news. This is, in part, because of the glowing quotes scattered throughout the story. “This is the beginning of the reinvention of what the presidency in the 21st century could be,” says the head of one think tank. And Sen. Ken Salazar, who will appear with Daschle at a health-care summit today, is quoted as saying:

President-elect Obama believes that change really comes from the ground up, not from Washington…The drumbeat for change is one which goes across every single state — red, blue and purple. That kind of a drumbeat will be very effective in achieving the change needed on health care.

Salazar’s statement is tinted in shades both joyous and earnest, and, unfortunately, it’s about as informative as most statements of that sort. He may mean every word he says, but such quotes are icing, not cake. And they can’t gauge the most important thing at stake—how effective these grass-roots organizational efforts, proven in politics, may be in shaping policy.

As Connolly rightly states, these efforts “provide hints as to how the new administration might tackle major health-care legislation.” Perhaps Connolly is trying to showcase those hints when she raves about the interactive content on, focusing on a “simple 63-second video” in which health advisers Dora Hughes and Lauren Aronson asked: “What worries you most about the health-care system in our country?”

The video trigged 3,700 responses, a number Connolly seems impressed by, and Obama’s techies built a “word cloud” showing the words that were most often used. That people are interested in responding to the question is heartening, but unsurprising news. It’s likewise innocuously interesting, but hardly helpful, to learn that among the most used words are “insurance” and “system” and “need.” While interactive tools like these may prove to be the visual version of getting the president’s ear, we’re far from seeing how this sort of “cyber-catharsis,” as the article terms it, will translate into bigger forms of momentum. The article would have done well to raise that doubt.

Instead, it offered schmaltzy embraces like this:

After the first health comments poured in to the transition Web site, Aronson made a second video, this time with Daschle, seated in shirt sleeves and a tie.

“We want to make sure you understand how important those comments and your contributions are,” Daschle says into the camera. “Already we’ve begun to follow through with some of the ideas.”

Connolly’s description—“seated in shirt sleeves” and “says into the camera”—reinforces the charm inherent to initiatives like these, and the feel-good myth that individual airings of opinion can lead to immediate general action (reinforced by Daschle’s comment that “already we’ve begun to follow through with some of the ideas”). Who knows what Daschle means, exactly, by “follow through?” I was too distracted by the shirt sleeves. Lesson: While there’s nothing downright wrong about using a positive aspect of Obama’s transition to engage in some feel-good reporting, it’s often more helpful to salt the wholesale embrace with some good ol’ skepticism.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.