Obama's "Last Campaign": Pop Culture Push for Health Law

Obama's "Last Campaign": Pop Culture Push for Health Law
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President Obama recently went on the “Ellen” TV show to encourage people to sign up for health insurance at HealthCare.gov. The interview lacked the humor of last week’s “Between Two Ferns” interview with Zach Galifianakis, but it was part of the same concerted strategy: to use pop culture venues to push the Affordable Care Act.

The president began this strategy last summer, months before the problematic launch of the health care enrollment website. In July 2013, he brought celebrities like Jennifer Hudson, Amy Poehler, Michael Cera, and Kal Penn to the White House, asking them to help promote the ACA. In addition to those celebrities, apparently busier stars like Jon Bon Jovi, Alicia Keys, and Oprah Winfrey sent their “representatives” to attend the meeting. Sarah Kliff and Ezra Klein, then of The Washington Post, reported that the president viewed the push to implement the ACA as his “last campaign.”

The phraseology is apt, as the White House is clearly aiming to replicate its 2012 re-election strategy to sell the health care law. During the campaign, the Obama team used a combination of pop culture venues and celebrity backers to make the argument, raise the funds, and get out the voters to secure a second term.

Obama appeared in “soft” media venues more than two dozen times in the run-up to the election. He “slow jammed” the news on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.” Fallon, for his part, called Obama “the Barackness Monster.” The president even appeared on an Albuquerque radio show to tell the “Morning Mayhem” crew that he prefers green chili over red, and that he likes working out to Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe.”

This strategy was not one of avoidance but of engagement. The venues and the messages were carefully thought out. Richard Wolffe’s recent book, “The Message,” reveals that Obama did not go on these pop culture venues to avoid tough questions, as some in the White House press corps appeared to think, but that the Obama team “preferred interviews with entertainment shows for their reach among infrequent and uninformed voters."

Obama found a number of advantages from working with celebrities as well. First, they help him appear glamorous and cool. More practically, they can be prodigious fundraisers. George Clooney was known as “Mr. Obama’s biggest bankroller.” “Desperate Housewives” star Eva Longoria co-chaired his 2012 campaign. Obama was not shy about his reliance on celebrities. In a February 2012 Hollywood fundraiser, he told the crowd, “I’m going to need you. You’re going to carry this thing like you did in 2008.”

The ACA campaign does not need fundraising, but instead Obama is using the celebrities as validators. The Galifianakis interview was clearly aimed at young voters. White House press secretary Jay Carney seemed practically giddy about the number of views the interview received, telling reporters, “I can assure you that the Funny or Die video will be one of the reasons we get young Americans to HealthCare.gov.”

As for Obama’s “Ellen” appearance, that too was targeted towards a specific audience: moms. Recognizing that young people tend not to watch the show, he tailored his comments specifically to mothers of the “young invincibles,” healthy young adults who often choose not to buy coverage. Another difference is that he made fewer, and lamer, jokes: “I have to tell you, Ellen, there’s not much dancing in the Situation Room.”

For all of the pop culture strategy’s advantages, it presents challenges as well. The entertainment community can be a two-edged sword. While Ellen DeGeneres and Zach Galifianakis are eager to help out, the ACA’s poor rollout brought about negative attention from the pop culture world as well. Carrie Underwood did an Obamacare parody song, “Obamacare by Morning,” and “South Park” also mocked the ACA website. “Saturday Night Live” even had an impersonator of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius offering dated goodies like free AOL Online hours and Encarta as incentives for signing up.

Reprising the pop culture strategy for the ACA resembles the White House team’s first-term use of Obama speechifying to confront issues. Obama’s speaking ability was seen as a tremendous asset in the 2008 campaign. Post-election, the White House seemed to look at presidential speeches as answers to numerous challenges, from health care to the controversy over the mistaken arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates. In the second term, the White House now appears eager to go back to the 2012 campaign playbook of pop culture outreach to sell its signature domestic program. It’s not clear if it will work, but presidential appearances on shows like “Between Two Ferns” do prove one thing. As the New York Times’ Michael Shear wrote last week, "There appears to be no place Mr. Obama is unwilling to go in his search for young people.” 

Tevi Troy is the author of “What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House” and a former senior White House aide.

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