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."