No president has ever pulled off what Obama now hopes to do -- move Congress by mobilizing a standing grassroots army.
A week ago, President Obama launched his second term with a set of lofty goals -- climate change legislation, immigration reform, and gun control among them.
Around the same time, Obama's former campaign apparatus announced it would morph into a new group called Organizing for Action, a nonprofit group to promote Obama's policy goals.
The inaugural address's ambitious promises have been pronounced far-fetched; the new nonprofit has been viewed as an intriguing sidelight. But taken together, Organizing for Action could be the key to enacting the president's agenda. Obama's best hope for his aggressive program may lie in the same innovative campaign techniques of grassroots mobilization and data-based field organizing that got him reelected in November. And if he pulls it off, he could revolutionize lawmaking the way he's already revolutionized campaigns.
Politicians talk about an outside game, but no president has ever commanded a standing army of organized supporters who could be summoned at a moment's notice to put pressure on Washington at his command. That is what Obama is proposing to do, said Addisu Demissie, who served as political director of Organizing for America, the heir to Obama's 2008 campaign organization.
"A lot of the things the president has proposed are popular -- pieces of gun safety, immigration, and so on," Demissie said. "The people are with him. But those people have to be heard, to step up and be counted, particularly in Republican congressional districts."
To be sure, there's a network of progressive advocacy organizations who are active on a wide range of issues. "But none of them have the sole job of mobilizing on behalf of the president's agenda," Demissie said. Obama's grassroots supporters "have been trained now, through two presidential election cycles, to work and organize and do the hard work of politics. Now, Obama can really use that power and those skills."
Particularly with the House in Republican hands, Demissie said, "I don't see how he can get that ambitious agenda through Congress without playing an outside game. Having a grassroots army could be the whole ballgame."
The president has, in recent months, signaled repeatedly that he plans to count on mobilizing his supporters to get things done, and that he regrets not having done so more aggressively during his first term. In his victory speech on Election Night, Obama told the audience his reelection was not the end of the road, telling his supporters that getting him reelected "doesn't mean your work is done." Even before the election, he was ridiculed for asserting, "You can't change Washington from the inside," calling it "the most important lesson I've learned." Interviewed by The New Republic last week, Obama said he planned on "spending a lot more time in terms of being in a conversation with the American people as opposed to just playing an insider game here in Washington."
Jen Psaki, who served as deputy White House communications director and worked for both Obama presidential campaigns, says it's wisdom the president learned the hard way, by getting bogged down and burned in Washington battles. "One of the greatest lessons of the first [Obama] term is you can't govern in a bubble," Psaki said. "Sitting across the table from other elected officials in a fancy room in Washington doesn't move an agenda, because there's no impetus for them to move."
The millions of rank-and-file Obama supporters who not only voted for him but devoted hours of their time and portions of their hard-earned paychecks to his campaign didn't just do it to get him elected -- they did it because they believed in the things he promised to do, and many of them are now itching to continue the fight. "The simple fact is there were millions of people actively engaged in the campaign," Psaki said. "They might not be engaged on every single issue moving forward, but they may care deeply about gun control, immigration, climate change or something else."
Insiders are calling Organizing for Action "OFA 4.0" -- the fourth iteration of the acronym. OFA 1.0 was the first presidential campaign; 2.0 was its successor, Organizing for America, which became an arm of the Democratic National Committee in 2009; 3.0 was the reelection campaign.
OFA 2.0 is the most direct precedent for the current effort -- and a cautionary tale. Organizing for America was largely blamed for having squandered the momentum of Obama's first victory, allowing the president to get mired in D.C. deal-making and leaving his rank-and-file supporters out in the cold.
Veterans of the group bristle a bit at this characterization, but most acknowledge that Organizing for America took too long to get started, lacked a focused mission, didn't play well with other actors (such as local Democratic parties) and, because of its affiliation with the DNC, suffered from conflicting imperatives. Was its job to push Obama's plans, or was it to get more Democrats elected?
"The biggest problem with being inside the DNC was that we couldn't put pressure on Democrats," one Organizing for America veteran told me. Though Democrats commanded a 54-seat House majority and 60-vote Senate supermajority, it became clear early in Obama's first term that they would need some cajoling to go along with plans like the stimulus bill and especially the health-care legislation.
"On health care, we really needed to hold Democrats accountable for standing up on the issue, but they could just call up the DNC if we caused any headache for them," the former OFA 2.0 staffer said. "When your paycheck is coming from the organization whose job it is to reelect these people, they can reasonably expect that you're not going to give them a hard time."
Nonetheless, Organizing for America had some success. In particular, staffers credit it with salvaging the health-care push during its darkest hour, when it was in danger of failing altogether.
It was the summer of 2009, and health-care legislation had gotten badly sidetracked in a maze of congressional horse-trading. The newly energized Tea Party was showing up at congressional town halls across the country to voice its vehement objections to the legislation. Faced with the images on the news of representatives getting shouted down and accused of wanting to kill Grandma, many Democrats withdrew, canceling events and reevaluating their support for the legislation, which suddenly looked politically toxic.
"We called on dedicated Obama supporters to come out, and we were able to mobilize within a few days to a week," said Evan Sutton, who served as Organizing for America's field director in Nevada. "Democrats were able to come out of hiding, and by the end of August, we were showing up at events and outnumbering the Tea Party folks 3 to 1 or 5 to 1 or 10 to 1 depending on the area." That substantially altered the dynamic -- and the story -- about the town halls from being about voter anger over health care to being about a more balanced debate between two sides.
"In 2005, President Bush tried to privatize Social Security, and Democrats basically did what the Tea Party did in 2009 -- organized people and flooded town halls," said Sutton, who now works for the New Organizing Institute, a progressive training group. "Bush didn't have anything to apply pressure back the other way, and as a result, the party backed off the issue and it died."
If Organizing for Action works, then, it could be the difference between the downward slide, in effectiveness and popularity, of Bush's second term and a more successful forecast for Obama's.
OFA 4.0 is being run by Jon Carson, the field director of Obama's 2008 campaign and director of the White House's Office of Public Engagement in the president's first term. From those two roles, insiders say, Carson has both an understanding of how Washington works and a deep facility with campaign mechanics. The group's chairman is Jim Messina, Obama's 2012 campaign manager.
What will Organizing for Action actually do? That's still up in the air. The Obama campaign model relies on a simple concept -- people reaching out to their friends and neighbors -- made effective with sophisticated use of data, targeting, and online tools.
Thus far, attempts to rally the Obama troops have been tentative at best. The millions-strong Obama campaign email list, which helped the president raise hundreds of millions of dollars online in 2012, has mostly been used to hawk inaugural merchandise and for a couple of tentative-seeming call-your-congressman campaigns around the fiscal cliff and, last week, gun control. The gun-control push, which came on a Friday afternoon when an anti-abortion rally had taken many GOP members out of their offices, did not exactly inspire a panic on Capitol Hill.
Supporters believe there are an array of tactics available to OFA 4.0, starting with the kinds of humble activities -- spread the word on Facebook! Hold a house party with your neighbors! -- that, brought to mass scale, accrued so powerfully for Obama's campaigns. Many of Obama's "liberal" policy proposals are broadly popular, his opposition is disorganized and diffuse, and lawmakers do respond to outpourings of public pressure.
Still, it's not clear how effective the Obama machine can be when it doesn't have the concrete goal of turning people out to vote as its end point. Will call-in campaigns be a satisfying means of political engagement? Will supporters be called on to hold rallies, raise money, write letters to the editor?
Plenty of other potential pitfalls await Obama in his new push. If he does turn his organizational muscle on Republican legislators, they are likely to respond with outrage and claims that they're being bullied. Turning the big guns on Democrats could be even more delicate for Obama's relationships in Washington.
And supporters will only stay engaged as long as they believe OFA 4.0 is true to the principles they believe in, pointed out Howard Dean, the former DNC chairman, who has his own experience refashioning a presidential campaign apparatus under a new acronym: Democracy for America, the heir to the 2004 Dean for America campaign, still exists as a supporter of progressive causes.
Dean believes OFA 2.0 "fell apart" when Obama backed off of the public option for health-care reform, dispiriting his progressive base and making them reluctant to rally to his side. If the president doesn't hold fast to the "inspiring" promises he made in his second inaugural, Dean said, his supporters will fall away once again.
Dean also worried that if OFA 4.0 accepts corporate dollars, it will undermine the president's ideals. And by being separate from the DNC, he said, it could siphon needed donations away from Democrats, weaken the party, and create resentment among allies.
But if the OFA 4.0 gambit is successful in bringing Obama's grassroots army to bear on the battles of Washington, it could change the political dynamic irrevocably, bringing a whole new meaning to the notion of the "permanent campaign."
"Lots of presidents have tried to rally the public on an ad hoc basis," Dean said, pointing to Ronald Reagan exhorting Americans to call their members of Congress in support of his tax proposals -- a ploy that worked. "But I don't believe any president has ever maintained a standing grassroots army .... Obama built the best grassroots campaign I've ever seen by a mile. Nobody has done this successfully before, but if anyone can do it, he can."