When insurance firms launched social media initiatives, the results were rewarding.
The White House still refuses to reveal the names of the 18 people who stood behind President Obama on Tuesday at the kickoff of a weeks-long campaign to promote Obamacare. In his remarks that day, the president said the people on stage with him represented Americans "all across the country whose lives have been changed for the better by the Affordable Care Act." But when asked who the people were and what their stories were, White House officials declined to provide the information.
Across the country in New Mexico, however, some observers recognized a former Albuquerque city councilman and Democratic politician named Michael Cadigan. (He is the tall white man with salt-and-pepper hair standing behind Obama, in the top left corner of the photo below.) Cadigan, a former Marine, was an early supporter of Obama's 2008 campaign, appearing with then-Sen. Obama at a campaign event and contributing $500 to the Obama effort. He has also been a small donor to the progressive activist group Act Blue.*
Cadigan ended up in Washington on Tuesday, standing behind the president, through the work of a pro-Obamacare, Democratic-aligned group called the Small Business Majority.
Here is what happened. Cadigan now has a small law firm with five employees. On Oct. 1, the first day anyone was allowed to shop for insurance on the Obamacare exchanges, he went to the New Mexico exchange -- the state created its own exchange and it was actually working on Day One -- and enrolled to cover his employees.
"I signed us up, and we were able to save my firm $1,000 a month," Cadigan said in an interview Wednesday night. Pleased, Cadigan wrote about his experience on Facebook, saying that he not only saved a significant amount of money but that the exchange experience had been relatively quick and easy. A short time later, according to Cadigan, a reporter from a New Mexico business publication noticed the Facebook post, got in touch, and wrote an article about it.
Meanwhile, the administration was coming under heavy criticism for the failure of the national Obamacare exchange, healthcare.gov. Democrats were eager to find success stories they could publicize. In late October, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi included Cadigan's story in a blog item titled "Affordable Care Act Success Stories." The story found its way into some Democratic talking points.
"Then I got a call from the Small Business Majority," said Cadigan. "They asked if they could use my story. I said sure ... and they called me last week and said, 'Can you come out and be at this event?' "
"This event" turned out to be a program with the president himself, in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, the first of an extended Obamacare promotion campaign. Cadigan, who said he had not heard of the Small Business Majority before, said he checked their website to see if they were legitimate. He did not deal with the White House in being invited and making arrangements; it was all done by the Small Business Majority. (Cadigan said he paid his own expenses to Washington.)
Cadigan said he did not know the 18 other people invited to stand with the president at the event. There were some doctors from Virginia. A woman who was studying biology at George Washington University who had stayed on her parents' insurance plan. A woman whose family has a farm-to-table restaurant in New York. A man who runs a lawn and garden center in Ann Arbor, Mich. Some had been brought by the Small Business Majority, while others were not.
Just what are their stories? The White House won't say. But beyond the issue of transparency, Cadigan's experience highlights the role outside groups, like the Small Business Majority, are playing in the Obamacare campaign; to some extent, it appears the White House has contracted out a significant part of the promotional work.
So what is the Small Business Majority? Founded in 2004 by a California tech entrepreneur and Democratic activist named John Arensmeyer, it says it is a nonpartisan, nonprofit group with a mission to "bring the voices of small business to the public policy table." The organization didn't attract a lot of attention in its early years, but made the news in 2009, when it made some hard-to- believe claims on behalf of the pending Obamacare legislation. (It claimed a large majority of small businesspeople supported an employer mandate, a claim other research did not support.) That prompted the New York Times business writer Robb Mandelbaum to take a look. What he found was an organization that did not really represent small business and did not represent a majority:
Small Business Majority has no membership -- if it did, Mr. Arensmeyer says, it could no longer objectively represent all of small business, since memberships are by definition self-selecting. Nor is it funded by small businesses; instead the organization depends almost entirely on foundation grants. (A related political action committee, which Mr. Arensmeyer describes as all but defunct now, raised much of its money in 2005 and 2006 from lawyers and investment fund managers, according to Federal Election Commission records available from the Center for Responsive Politics.)
Mandelbaum concluded that the Small Business Majority is "nonpartisan only in the most technical sense, in that it is not formally allied with any party. Informally, however, it is allied with the Democratic Party."
In recent weeks, the group has spoken out on other issues from a decidedly partisan perspective; Arensmeyer said recently, for example, that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's decision to employ the "nuclear option" to kill the filibuster for presidential nominations was "welcome news to small employers." And, of course, the Obamacare campaign goes on. If recent experience is any measure, the Small Business Majority will continue to use its self-appointed role as the voice of small business owners to sell Obamacare to a skeptical public.
*An earlier version of this article said Cadigan had also made a small contribution to MoveOn. He did not.