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Health debate fails to ignite Obama’s Web

The grass-roots enthusiasm of the campaign has not carried over to efforts to overhaul the health care system.
/ Source: The New York Times

At her home on Tom Sawyer Road here the other night, Bonnie Adkins agreed to begin spreading the word that President Obama’s embattled health care plan needed help.

Ms. Adkins, who for the past two years devoted hundreds of hours helping Mr. Obama get to the White House, hosted a potluck supper that was advertised to Democrats in this eastern Iowa town along the Mississippi River. People were invited to bring a favorite salad or dessert — and their cellphones — to make calls drumming up support for the president’s agenda.

She wondered whether her house would hold everyone, but there was no reason for worry.

“We had 10 people. Not a huge number, but good,” said Ms. Adkins, 55, who has been an Obama volunteer since the first day she saw him during a stop here on March 11, 2007. “The enthusiasm is not there like it was a year ago. Most people, when they get to Nov. 5, put their political hat away and it doesn’t come out for three years.”

As the health care debate intensifies, the president is turning to his grass-roots network — the 13 million members of Organizing for America — for support.

Mr. Obama engendered such passion last year that his allies believed they were on the verge of creating a movement that could be mobilized again. But if a week’s worth of events are any measure here in Iowa, it may not be so easy to reignite the machine that overwhelmed Republicans a year ago.

More than a dozen campaign volunteers, precinct captains and team leaders from all corners of Iowa, who dedicated a large share of their time in 2007 and 2008 to Mr. Obama, said in interviews this week that they supported the president completely but were taking a break from politics and were not active members of Organizing for America.

'Waste of time'
Some said they were reluctant to talk to their neighbors about something personal and complicated like health care. And others expressed frustration at the genteel approach, asking why Democrats were not filling the town-hall-style meetings of Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Finance Committee negotiating health care legislation, or Representative Leonard L. Boswell, a member of the moderate Blue Dog Democratic group.

“It’s a waste of time,” said Gilbert P. Sierra of Davenport, a Democrat who attended an Organizing for America meeting, where about 100 people gathered to vent frustrations and discuss how they could stand up to conservative critics. “Why spend money on this and only be talking to the choir?”

Iowa, where Mr. Obama’s candidacy sprang to life through a neighbor-to-neighbor style of organizing, offers a telling laboratory of the challenges as the president tries to keep at least some of his grass-roots organization active so it has not atrophied when re-election time arrives in three years.

Mitch Stewart, the executive director of Organizing for America who worked as the field director in the Iowa caucuses before running the Virginia operation in the general election, said there was no expectation that every supporter would remain active. Mr. Stewart said the group had chosen not to flood into meetings of Republican members of Congress, but rather to combat what they described as misinformation about the president’s health care plans.

“We’re not geared up to out scream the other side,” Mr. Stewart said in an interview, advocating a more methodical approach. “But if we were not engaged in this effort at all, I think our organization would certainly be asking us why not. They are here to support the president and he needs them at this moment.”

Organizing for America has paid political directors in 44 states, Mr. Stewart said. In recent months the group’s strategy has changed. Gone are the television commercials on health care, climate change and other issues that were broadcast in an effort to pressure moderate Democrats to support the president’s proposals. Now, after the White House received an earful from some of those Democrats, the group has started running advertisements of appreciation.

“Even if they aren’t 100 percent on board, we’re asking our folks to thank our members,” Mr. Stewart said. “Our tactics are continuing to evolve.”

Here in Iowa, the Organizing for America effort resembles the earliest days of a presidential campaign, a shoestring operation where homemade signs hang from the walls and only the most diehard of supporters attend events. Many of the young campaign aides who became familiar faces in towns across Iowa are now working in Washington, so a new crop of workers has taken over to help direct older volunteers.

Some of the activists Mr. Obama attracted to politics remain involved, but audiences at the Organizing for America events were largely filled with party stalwarts like Lynda Smith, 67, who retired from her factory job to work as a greeter at Wal-Mart. She initially supported Hillary Rodham Clinton for president, but now is a fierce advocate for Mr. Obama.

“People came out of the woodwork for Obama during the campaign, but now they are hibernating,” Ms. Smith said. “Now it is hard to find enough volunteers to fight the Republicans’ fire with more fire.”

Kevin Geiken, 27, is deputy director of the group in Iowa. He drives across the state to preside over meetings, where he explains the broad principles of the president’s health care agenda and, for the most part, listens as the supporters voice their opinions.

“The White House is very interested in what’s happening at these meetings,” Mr. Geiken said, reminding attendees to write their thoughts on pieces of paper that would be sent to Washington. As he bid people farewell, he offered a motivational cry: “We’re going to reach out to neighbors, hit the streets and knock on doors all across Iowa.”

But even among those who turned out for the meetings, many of whom had Obama buttons affixed to their shirts and spoke glowingly of the president, there was a sense of fatigue at the prospect of returning to the political calisthenics the Obama army once required.

Ms. Adkins, who hosted the meeting in her home this week here in Muscatine, speaks passionately about Mr. Obama. She attended the inauguration and carefully follows the developments at the White House. But she conceded that when it came time for door-to-door canvassing a few months ago — a task she has long disliked — she left town so she would not have to say no.

“I’ve had to take breaks for my family’s sake,” Ms. Adkins said, adding that she was awaiting the birth of her second grandchild. “When that phone rings, my Obama hat goes off and my grandma hat will go on.”

This story, "," originally appeared in The New York Times.