By Maeve Reston
10:00 PM EDT, September 20, 2013
Wedged into the blotter on Mike Farah's desk at the Funny or Die studios in Hollywood is an index card with a list — wrangling talent, polishing scripts and arranging shoots — long enough to keep the comedy website executive fully occupied. But these tasks are part of a different quest: the campaign to ensure the success of President Obama's healthcare law.
While the GOP-led House passed a spending bill Friday that would strip federal funding for the Affordable Care Act and force a confrontation with the Senate that could shut down the government, Farah and his team were developing as many as 20 projects involving the healthcare law. The first will go live on Sept. 30, the day before Americans are supposed to be able to enroll in the new health insurance marketplaces.
Efforts of allies like Farah in Hollywood — which could be key in reaching the critical enrollment target of 18-to-35-year-olds — are just one small piece of a broad-reaching campaign by the Obama administration and the consortium of industry and nonprofit groups working to get at least 7 million Americans enrolled in the next six months.
Farah's drive stems from a series of White House meetings, culminating in a July session in the Roosevelt Room in which the president asked for help promoting the law from a conference table full of artists, entertainers and creative executives including Farah, Amy Poehler, Jason Derulo, Michael Cera and Jennifer Hudson.
Farah, Funny or Die's president of production, was shocked by the challenges facing the White House.
"The simplest way to put it was, they had spent all this time and energy and money on the biggest movie of their lives and had no marketing budget in which to promote it. I just thought that was the craziest thing I'd ever heard," Farah said. He volunteered the firm's help, he said, because he knew "we'd do the work."
They are playing on a cluttered field. On the other side, powerful conservative groups are trying to persuade Americans to opt out of the law. This week, the group Generation Opportunity aired a Web video depicting Uncle Sam popping up between the legs of a young woman at the gynecologist's office. The video drew more than 600,000 views within 36 hours. More traditionally, Americans for Prosperity, the free-market advocacy group that spent more than $33 million to try to defeat Obama in the 2012 election, has hosted telephone forums and town-hall-style meetings as part of a 35-state campaign to block the healthcare law.
"We now have a funded, professional, logistically proficient infrastructure that, when one of these fights [arises] can really spring into action," said Americans for Prosperity President Tim Phillips.
The House vote Friday illustrated the fervor of the battle. After months of largely symbolic votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the chamber's most conservative Republican lawmakers backed the GOP leadership into a corner, insisting that future government spending be linked to suspension of funding for the healthcare law. Without a compromise, many nonessential government agencies will shut their doors when the budget year ends Sept. 30, the eve of the law's enrollment period.
Beyond the squabbling over a government shutdown, the stakes for Obama in the success of his signature legislative achievement are immense. His push for immigration reform has stalled, he was pounded by critics for appearing indecisive on action in Syria, and his approval ratings have sunk.
Republican and Democratic groups acknowledge that the fate of many 2014 congressional campaigns will tip on public perceptions of the healthcare law. And the burden of any problems will be shouldered by the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, particularly if it is Vice President Joe Biden or Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is remembered for her healthcare push during her husband's administration.
At this stage, it is difficult to measure the efficacy of the campaign to influence Americans' perceptions of the law, in part because there is little transparency about how much third-party groups are spending on both sides.
Three years after the law's passage, confusion surrounding it is striking. Americans, even uninsured ones, remain divided over whether the law will help their families, according to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation tracking poll. In an August survey, 1 in 8 uninsured Americans said they had been contacted about the law by phone, email, text or a door-to-door visit.
That is where Obama's collaboration with Hollywood — long a home to Democratic campaign donors — may end up being most helpful.
The website for Funny or Die claims 19 million unique users and more than 60 million video views per month, and their demographic strength overlaps perfectly with the young people who must sign up for the healthcare law in order for it to succeed. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that young people will make up 40% of the 7 million who sign up.
The website's video featuring Paris Hilton's response to Sen. John McCain's 2008 campaign ad framing Obama as "the biggest celebrity in the world" snagged 11 million views.
And as one healthcare law advocate noted, it would be difficult for the Department of Health and Human Services to match the punch of singer-songwriter Derulo's Twitter message directing his 2.3 million followers to sign up at healthcare.gov (especially now that his single "Talk Dirty" is knocking Katy Perry's "Roar" off the singles charts).
Those celebrity efforts, of course, only augment what the administration and health insurance industry-allied groups are doing in churches, drugstores, clinics and beauty and barber shops across the country.
Though the administration will not detail the full budget, it has announced pieces: a multimillion-dollar ad buy this fall, the $150 million parceled out to community health centers for outreach and $67 million in grants for so-called navigators, who are helping consumers enroll in health coverage.
Competition for the support of the young may be the most fierce.
Enroll America is using campaign-style data tools to identify the uninsured through census and consumer marketing data and then going door-to-door to find them. Young Invincibles has developed mobile phone apps to connect elusive younger people with the resources they need to sign up, basing the technology on Pew survey findings that African Americans and Latinos — groups with higher rates of uninsured — tend to use their phones more than other devices to get information about services available to them.
On the other side, Generation Opportunity this fall plans a college bus tour to 20 campuses across the country. It hopes to counter Enroll America's efforts with "good-looking" ambassadors bearing their message, according to the group's president, Evan Feinberg.
In Hollywood, Farah and his creative team will be seeking those same eyeballs — guided by the Teddy Roosevelt quote that is framed on his office bar cart, which attests that credit belongs to the man "in the arena."
He is loath to reveal the celebrities who will be joining him there, not wanting to deprive his audience of the element of surprise.
But he agrees to show one video, which makes the case to sign up for insurance with the laugh-cringe moments you might expect from Funny or Die: a little girl tumbling head-first off her rocking horse, a skateboarder's ill-fated trick, a boy attempting a jump on his bike and ending up limp on the asphalt.
"Valerie Jarrett loved this video," Farah said, referring to Obama's trusted aide. But the test will come with a far tougher audience than that.
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