Is Obama's grass-roots group losing momentum as it ages?
Shelly Nilson of Allison Park makes calls for Organizing for America-Pennsylvania encouraging area residents to contact their elected officials to voice support for President Obama's proposal for health care reform.
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One novel facet of President Barack Obama's promise to bring change to Washington was an ambitious effort to shift the energy of millions of volunteers from campaigning to the substance of governing.
The result was Organizing for America, a pioneering attempt to preserve and nurture the grass-roots engagement that helped elect the Democrat. Armed with the e-mail list of 13 million activists compiled by the Obama campaign, the group, operating alongside the Democratic National Committee, employs staff members throughout the country who attempt to cultivate community support for the policies of the new administration.
In his memoir, "The Audacity to Win," Obama campaign manager David Plouffe described his hopes that OFA would be a transformative force in the nation's politics.
"... [H]aving millions of Americans absorbing ideas and message, understanding them and sharing them -- and having thousands on any given day organize conversations in their communities to show and build support for them -- is an asset few presidents, if any, have enjoyed."
Since the inauguration, OFA has been active, sponsoring workshops and bus tours and encouraging voters to reach out to Congress on a variety of issues. But as Mr. Obama's core initiative of health care reform hangs in the balance, and as midterm congressional elections loom, the effectiveness of that grass-roots energy is being put to tough, real-world tests.
On a cold evening earlier this month, about 50 Democratic activists gathered in the Teamsters Temple in Lawrenceville for a briefing by OFA staff members and a strategy session on the 2010 elections.
In an extended PowerPoint presentation, staffers enumerated the calls and congressional contacts OFA partisans had made on issues including economic recovery legislation, health care reform and the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
But measuring activity is not the same as measuring effectiveness.
Touching on a subject many Democrats would be happy to forget, one slide found a silver lining in the Massachusetts Senate election that battered the party's morale and health care hopes. The election of Republican Scott Brown, an OFA organizer suggested, became a closer battle after OFA efforts produced 2.4 million calls to Massachusetts's voters in the closing days of the campaign.
More than a year after the climax of an emotional presidential campaign, the mere presence of the audience demonstrated a level of commitment.
"They got 50 people out on a winter night, and there were only two that I recognized -- that's a good thing," said Marty Marks, a campaign consultant who was there to promote a lieutenant governor candidate.
But the group's questions and the reports of small-group sessions also offered repeated notes of frustration -- over congressional compromises surrounding the health care legislation, over its clouded prospects and the perception that the administration needed to be more aggressive in countering right-wing critics.
"There is a feeling that a lot of people are disillusioned, we have to work to keep the enthusiasm high," said Saleem Kahn, a professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School, as he reported on his group's discussion.
Later, the Point Breeze resident said it was natural that the intense focus of a campaign would be diffused dealing with the varied agenda of governing. He defended the administration's accomplishments, but added, "People are a little concerned that the correct information isn't coming out in the media ... I have to give credit to the other side; the other side has been on their message, whether it is true or not."
One complaint voiced by several participants was that the session was focused on the coming election for Congress while the consensus concerns of the audience were more directed toward the need to pass a health care bill.
In the week that followed, OFA made a renewed push on the legislation, with e-mails from Mr. Plouffe and OFA Executive Director Mitch Stewart prodding the activists to press members of Congress.
An e-mail signed by Mr. Stewart and sent to activists in Pittsburgh's 14th Congressional District urged them to contact Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, and thank him for supporting the legislation. Matt Dinkel, Mr. Doyle's press secretary, said Thursday that, presumably because of the e-mail, pro-health care calls to the congressional office soared at week's end.
"These things go up and down depending on who's running a phone bank, who's spending the money and who has the organization," he said.
Whether the calls to Mr. Doyle were the best use of OFA's energy is another question. The veteran Democrat voted for the House version of the bill and, while he has concerns about the parliamentary issues of dealing with the Senate bill, remains basically in favor of the administration's legislation.
Earlier in the week, Mr. Doyle said that OFA's calls hadn't been crucial to his decision on the health care measure. But he said, "The good thing about them is they've been a source of accurate information in the community. You had all that outlandish stuff out there like "death panels,' and they were good at setting people straight."
In a neighboring district, Rep. Jason Altmire, D-McCandless, remains undecided on his vote on health care. Asked on Thursday if he had been subject to extensive lobbying by OFA partisans, he said, "Not recently. They were very disappointed in my vote [against the House bill] in November. They had contacted me before my vote. But I have not had contact with them since."
Probably the most extensive outside assessment of OFA's first year is a 74-page report by journalist Ari Melber, "Year One of Organizing for America: The Permanent Field Campaign in a Digital Age."
Mr. Melber, a reporter for The Nation, describes his politics as "progressive," and is sympathetic to the group's goals. While he said it is too early to judge the group's overall effectiveness, his report questions its lobbying performance. It can be seen at www.arimelber.com/?page_id=445.
"Congressional staff in both parties say OFA has mobilized constituent lobbying but do not say OFA was a major or powerful force on Capitol Hill in its first year, " he wrote. "Congressional aides do not think OFA is changing members' votes."
Elizabeth Lucas, the group's Pennsylvania director, said OFA has already established itself as a powerful new force.
"I would say that OFA volunteers are some of the most organized and motivated groups of supporters in the entire country ... so committed and so dedicated to the president's agenda," she said when asked to assess the group's performance.
"I don't think that health care would have survived August if it weren't for the work OFA did," she added, pointing out that OFA partisans had been a presence at congressional town hall meetings across the state.
OFA representation at those congressional recess forums was a countervailing force to angry and vocal protests promoted by another novel force in politics -- the "tea party" groups and similar outspoken critics of the administration.
The births of the two sharply contrasting grass-roots organizations were among the more significant political development of the last year. Which of them will have a more enduring influence is one of the most important questions about the country's immediate political future.
In the short term, the tea party, "9.12" and similar groups clearly won the battle of the headlines as the louder voice in the health care debate. It remains to be seen which of them is the more effective in the long run.
In an interview, Mr. Melber said it was not surprising to see the "tea party" movement emerge as such a robust rival to a group supported by the White House and rooted in perhaps the most effective grass-roots effort of presidential campaign history.
"It's often easier to organize against government action, rather than for government action," he said, pointing to the example on the left, of MoveOn.org. "They pushed against impeachment [of former President Bill Clinton] and then had another spurt of growth and evolution when it organized against the Iraq War ... in the tea party scenario, much like trying to stop a war, they're organizing against something they think is bad."
Beyond the health care bill, the most important coming test of OFA, as for its antagonists, will be the fall elections. At the Lawrenceville meeting, organizers reviewed the two crucial trends of midterm elections -- voter turnout falls sharply from presidential years, and with rare exceptions, the party of the president loses seats in Congress.
The 2008 election produced a record tide of new voters, and exit polls showed that Mr. Obama won the overwhelming majority of them. OFA staffers outlined a campaign countdown aimed at bringing as many of the new voters of 2008 back to the polls in 2010 through a meticulous community-based organizing effort. All of that is abetted by the e-mail list inherited from the Obama campaign. Ms. Lucas said that list had been bolstered over the last year as OFA reached out to new voters who had not been active in the presidential campaign.
But Ms. Lucas said that the attention to the potential of digital campaigning obscured more essential low-tech work of volunteers interacting with their neighbors. The e-mail list, she said is "no silver bullet."
"The important work OFA volunteers do is the day-in, day-out work in the community, in the coffee shops, talking to their neighbors," she said.
Mr. Doyle, while offering a positive overall assessment of OFA, said he saw no evidence that it had transformed the way the administration and Congress interact with voters. He pointed to the challenge of sustaining voter intensity outside of the superheated context of a presidential campaign.
"The idea that this was going to be a stepover directly to the people, that [hasn't happened.]," he said.
First Published March 15, 2010 12:00 am