Faced With Bad Health Care News, Obama Turns To Orszag And His Blog

Slightly after noon on an otherwise slow-news Saturday, journalists began turning their attention to a Congressional Budget Office analysis released earlier that morning detailing how an independent panel could affect Medicare spending.

The consensus was negative. “CBO deals new blow to health plan,” blared a headline article from Politico, noting that the White House’s proposal to create an Independent Medicare Advisory Council would not have major savings over the decade.

In the White House, the coverage was viewed as unexpectedly harsh and, to some, off base — major savings, they noted, could be achieved, just in subsequent decades. Within an hour, the pushback had been planned and launched. Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag fired off a testy blog post in which he wrote that the proposed new council was “a game changer not a scoreable offset.” He concluded: “In providing a quantitative estimate of long-term effects without any analytical basis for doing so, CBO seems to have overstepped.”

Once it was live on whitehouse.gov, the White House’s media team alerted reporters to Orszag’s blog. And by Monday, a new narrative had been set, one focused on the dispute over the analysis rather than its conclusion. “Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag accused Congressional Budget Office Director Doug Elmendorf of ‘overstepping’ in a Web post Saturday,” read MSNBC’s First Read, “escalating the battle between the Obama administration and Republicans over the White House’s conduct toward the CBO.”

While just a small battle in the larger health care debate, the White House’s pushback against Saturday’s CBO report illustrates a key feature of this administration’s approach to the reform process. While Orszag is well known as a telegenic, genuine health care obsessive who once headed the CBO himself, little attention has been paid to his eager use of new media to get across his message.

More than any other department within the White House, OMB has worked to spread its message through venues other than the traditional press. Orszag in particular has been a pioneer in this effort. One White House aide called him the president’s “secret weapon.” Others say he has found his niche and passion in trying to convey complex topics through personalized forums.

“Peter sees OMBlog as an effective way to explain to people what OMB is doing and why,” said Kenneth Baer, OMB communications director. “It also gives him a chance to dive much deeper into a topic, the type of analysis that is often lost in the mainstream media.”

Saturday was a case study in how Orszag is trying to change the landscape — or, perhaps, adjust to it. The Politico story on the CBO report was published at 2:47 p.m. After coordinating with other members of the White House’s communications team and hammering out the message, Orszag was up with his rebuttal by 3:19 p.m. That he would take to the blog was hardly surprising.

Orszag has openly touted his affinity for blogging, declaring it a great venue to distill complex issues into an accessible form for the public. And, over the course of several months, his posts have become essential reading for members of the press corps.

When the administration was outlining its budget, Orszag personally called a host of reporters, including those from non-traditional outlets, to pitch them on specific aspects of the president’s approach. And OMB, among other administration offices, most often uses the president’s new media team to fine-tune and disseminate its message, aides say.

Those close to Orszag say he has a strong appetite to know what is going on in the world of politics and a keen sense of how stories can go from zero-to-sixty in the fast-paced 24-hour news cycle. The OMB Director follows roughly 20 blogs with his Google reader. And he often will take somewhat obscure but intellectually interesting topics and turn them into short analysis pieces. In April 2009, for instance, he analyzed the correlation between suicide rates and the economic recession.

But what makes Orszag an effective new media mouthpiece for this administration — especially within the context of the health care debate — is his knack for delivering a message in ways that resonate with the press and public. To this point, aides say, he has already coined several phrases that have become staples of the current health care debate lexicon. The administration’s approach to making health care reform more approachable for Congress is known as the “belt and suspenders approach.” And the notion of finding long-term cost savings in the system now goes by the term “bending the curve.”

“He has thought about health care for a long time and worked on it a long time. And I think when you are really familiar with the topic you have the ability to pull back and expand upon it in a way that is accessible for people,” said an administration aide.

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