Can Obama Community-Organize His Way to a Debt Deal?

Grassroots organizing carried the president to reelection -- but it won't help him avert the fiscal cliff, experts say.

Larry Downing/Reuters

President Obama's reelection campaign managed to community-organize its way to electoral victory and a second term. Now we'll find out whether the same kind of grassroots approach can help Obama push his policy agenda through a divided Congress. Rallying voters behind a candidate is one thing; it's quite another to rally citizens behind a plan to reduce the deficit and avert end-of-year spending cuts and tax increases, and then translate that support into legislative action.

"I'd be hard pressed to find out how those -- which are very useful skills -- in a direct way benefit a bargain," Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said of organizing a group of citizens behind a common goal.

Deal-making in a deeply divided Congress requires negotiating with party leaders in the House and Senate. Sweet-talking moderates can go only so far, Ornstein said. And Republican leaders who hold their own power and leverage aren't likely to be cowed by calls to their offices from angry Obama supporters.

"Part of it is, are you going to be able to get, say, McConnell to step aside while 40 senators from both sides work out a bargain?" Ornstein said of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Persuading House Speaker John Boehner to call a vote on a deal unpopular with his caucus -- as any bipartisan agreement is sure to be -- is another challenge.

Obama is already planning to head out across the country to rally the public behind his insistence that a deal include both higher taxes on the wealthy and spending cuts, The New York Times reported on Monday. The president also plans to maintain his grassroots organization to leverage public support, according to The Times. Last cycle, vestiges of Obama's 2008 field organization were incorporated into the Democratic National Committee to further Democratic policy goals.

The White House, and the president himself, have long touted the benefits of playing an outside game. Senior adviser David Plouffe told reporters last week that Obama's supporters "play a very, very important role" in policy change, citing health reform and student loans as two examples. Obama believes "you're not going to be able to change Washington solely from the inside," Plouffe said.

It's hard to prove, however, that pressure applied by Obama's supporters managed to move legislators during his first term. As the president approaches his second, the pitched battle over deficit reduction may be a particularly difficult space for him to leverage his grassroots organization.

"To mobilize people out there, there needs to be a kind of clarity," said Marshall Ganz, senior lecturer in public policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. It's extremely hard to mobilize people behind a plan that doesn't yet exist, or is in the process of being tweaked and disputed by legislators. When it came to health care reform, for example, "the president's own objectives were murky," Ganz said, which may have made mobilizing his supporters more challenging.

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Sophie Quinton is a staff reporter for National Journal.

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