W.H. launches attacks on attacks

The White House launched a coordinated effort Tuesday to combat what it calls a “viral whisper campaign” to torpedo health care reform.

Its playbook: the same one Barack Obama’s campaign used in 2008 to shoot down rumors and questions about his citizenship, faith and patriotism.

The new offensive started early Tuesday morning when the White House posted a video response to a hodgepodge of clips on the Drudge Report that portrayed President Obama as favoring the elimination of private insurance. On the White House blog, Obama’s director of new media, Macon Phillips, asked supporters to send in leads for debunking chain e-mails or anything else that “seems fishy.”

It continued through the day with press secretary Robert Gibbs and Democratic National Committee spokesman Brad Woodhouse both saying a series of confrontational town hall meetings were manufactured by Republicans, conservative groups and lobbyists who are paid to drum up opposition.

Woodhouse described them as “angry mobs of rabid right-wing extremists” that populated McCain-Palin rallies last year.

Tuesday was just the start of the offensive, White House aides said.

The White House and its allies are developing a clearinghouse website to debunk rumors and myths — similar to the FightTheSmears.com site used during the campaign. They plan to use more video, Twitter, e-mail lists and other new media tools to “combat the right-wing noise machine” and dedicate new resources to rapid response on health care, according to a White House official.

Dan Pfeiffer, the deputy White House communications director, who served as the campaign communications director, is also expected to take an increased role in the stepped-up operation, the official said.

“We are going to be very aggressive,” said David Axelrod, a White House senior adviser. “The last thing we want to do is let misimpressions fester because we were laggard in responding.”

Former President Bill Clinton attempted to overhaul health care before the Internet and cable news were mainstays in most American households. He had to worry most about TV ads featuring a middle-class couple named “Harry and Louise.”

But this time, the threats come on multiple levels, severely complicating efforts to explain an already confusing and challenging set of policy prescriptions to the average voter.

Obama’s health care overhaul has been dogged in recent weeks by what the administration has called a “disinformation campaign” waged through the Internet, chain e-mails and talk radio. Conservatives have charged that Obama’s health care proposal would promote euthanasia, encourage federal funding of abortions, end private insurance and force every American into a public insurance plan. The White House and Democratic congressional leaders dispute each charge.

The opposition has manifested itself in a series of confrontational town halls in which proponents of the president’s health reform effort are shouted down and booed.

“Much like we saw at the McCain-Palin rallies last year, where crowds were baited with cries of ‘socialist,’ ‘communist,’ and where the birthers movement was born, these mobs of extremists are not interested in having a thoughtful discussion about the issues — but like some Republican leaders have said, they are interested in ‘breaking’ the president and destroying his presidency,” Woodhouse said in a statement.  

In his daily briefing, Gibbs went after Rick Scott, founder of Conservatives for Patients’ Rights, for reportedly taking credit for the town halls.

“You’ve got somebody who’s very involved, a leader of that group that’s very involved in — in the status quo, a CEO that used to run a health care company that was fined by the federal government $1.7 billion for fraud,” Gibbs said. “I think that’s a lot of what you need to know about the motives of that group.”

Conservatives for Patients’ Rights has posted lists of town halls — and videos of disrupted town halls — on its website, and it’s sending out “town hall alert” notices to people on its mailing lists.

Ken Spain, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, called the DNC’s accusation about a concerted effort “offensive.” Scott said in a statement that his group did not need to manufacture anger, as Gibbs and others have charged.

“It is a shame that Mr. Gibbs chooses to dismiss these Americans and their very real concerns, instead opting to level personal attacks,” Scott said. “The simple fact is that the more Americans learn about the president’s public-option plan, the more they realize it is a massive government takeover that will mean higher taxes, bigger deficits and interfere with their current coverage, resulting in delayed or denied medical care for them and their families.”

With the same circle of advisers in the White House as in the campaign, Obama knows how quickly something that he views as ridiculous and unworthy of a response can spiral into something unavoidable.

Early in the general election campaign, Obama press aides refused to respond to some of the more outlandish claims that circulated through e-mail inboxes and the far reaches of the Internet. They did not want to fuel any story line by providing a rebuttal that would then generate more attention from mainstream reporters.

But a question from a McClatchy reporter directly to Obama about one of the unsubstantiated allegations — that his wife, Michelle, had been recorded using the word “whitey”— prompted the campaign in June 2008 to shift tactics and go for a more aggressive attack.

Within a week of fielding the question, the Obama campaign started FightTheSmears.com, which served as a clearinghouse for challenging any and all rumors — from questions about his birthplace, his patriotism and his religion to an allegation that Michelle Obama had ordered lobster and caviar from room service at a hotel (she hadn’t).

“Unanswered, erroneous charges tend to settle because they are not challenged,” Axelrod said of lessons learned from the campaign. “So we are not going to allow that to happen.”

The partisan fighting stood in contrast to a call for bipartisanship that Obama issued to the Senate Democratic Caucus on Tuesday, during an almost two-hour lunch meeting aimed at preparing them for the August recess.

“The president discussed how the current tone and culture in Washington made it more difficult than it has been in the past to work in a bipartisan fashion,” according to a White House official who attended the lunch. “In particular, he singled out Republican senators who are trying to work in a bipartisan fashion even in the context of a vocal minority in their party who doubt that the president was born in the U.S.”

Obama also added that he did not like seeing “left-wing groups attack fellow Democrats,” the aide said.

Some in the room expressed concern with how Democrats would maintain support for health care reform through the break.

“The president urged them, as they were holding town hall meetings, to make the case clearly about why this is important, why it’s important to our economy and our fiscal situation as a country and how it would benefit Americans looking for health insurance and how it would help those who have it,” the aide said.

Patrick O’Connor and Amie Parnes contributed to this story.

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