President Barack Obama’s team redefined the way to run a national election. Now, it’s trying to do the same thing for issue-advocacy campaigns -- starting with the reinvention of its own operation.
“We did not do as good of a job” in advocating for the first-term agenda “as I would have hoped,” Obama told supporters at a March 13 dinner in Washington.
With the president facing the final opportunity to cement his legacy in his second term, Team Obama is trying anew.
Top former campaign and White House aides have once again converted his campaign machine -- the political juggernaut of 2012 with 20 million e-mail addresses and 4 million volunteers - - into a policy-advocacy organization, renamed Organizing for Action. Just as it did four years ago, the group has tapped as leaders the president’s closest allies, including 2012 campaign manager Jim Messina and field organizer Jon Carson.
At stake are Obama’s closing legislative priorities, ranging from gun safety to a historic revision of immigration laws. The group also plans to engage in the deficit-reduction debate, which may provide the president with an opportunity to strike an agreement with U.S. House Republicans on changes to the tax code and such entitlements as Medicare that would influence the nation’s financial picture for decades.
Improving the effectiveness of the advocacy group is deemed critical to avoiding the mistakes of the first term. Within two years of Obama taking office, the effort called Organizing for America had failed to win over the public to his health-care legislation, stood powerless as Republicans took control of the House in the 2010 elections, and had deepened rifts within the Democratic Party.
Some political strategists say there’s no evidence this new incarnation of OFA will fare any better than its predecessor; without a re-election fight for the president, it could be more difficult to sustain volunteer enthusiasm and raise money.
“What they’re trying to do -- grassroots issues work between campaigns is vital -- has been talked about or attempted for as long as I can remember,” said Steve Rosenthal, a former political director for the AFL-CIO labor federation who now works as an organizing consultant based in Washington. “It’s always been hard to raise money, particularly without the potency of a campaign.”
This time will be different, Messina said during a March 26 Bloomberg Government luncheon in Washington.
While the first OFA was housed inside the Democratic National Committee, the new group is “nonpartisan” and independent, organized as a nonprofit that is free of campaign-finance limitations on the size of donations. And Messina said the organization will focus its volunteer force more on local issues -- such as gay-marriage legislation in Illinois -- as well as federal legislative campaigns in order to enrich its member relationships and interactions.
“We played an inside game,” he said, criticizing the first OFA. “People forgot it was ‘yes, we can,’ and kind of got into the ‘yes, he can.’”
One indisputable benefit of the group: OFA’s first-term outreach enabled Obama’s team to expand and continuously update its database of voters, giving the 2012 campaign a head start. That list remains one of the Democratic Party’s most valuable assets, and the revamped OFA plans to keep it current.
Already, Obama-centric e-mail missives arrive almost daily in millions of in-boxes, asking recipients to call their representative or organize their communities on issues such as gun control, immigration and the budget. Today, Obama supporters will participate in gun-control rallies across the country.
The effort echoes Obama’s initial plans for the first iteration of the group. Then, campaign offices were transformed into OFA stations, where paid political directors hosted events, including blood drives and phone banks, to promote passage of the president’s plan to expand health-care coverage to tens of millions of uninsured Americans.
The activity failed to reignite Obama’s grass-roots machine, which became discouraged by mixed messages coming from the president as he navigated the legislative process.
“One day they would get the message, ‘Yes, we want the public option put into your phone banking script.’ The next day they would take it out,” said Susan Smith, a Democratic activist from Tampa, Florida, referring to a proposed government-run insurance program that would be offered as an alternative to private plans. “The voters saw us as all over the map because there wasn’t something strong from the top coming down.”
OFA also underestimated its opposition, leaving volunteers unprepared for the wave of anti-tax Tea Party anger against the bill expressed at town-hall meetings held by lawmakers in August 2009. The outcry over the potential cost and scope of the measure set the tone for much of the debate, heightening apprehension among Republicans and skittish Democrats about backing the bill.
In December 2009, OFA sent an e-mail to 13 million supporters asking them to call senators to back the health-care law. That yielded 150,000 calls -- less than half the number that resulted from a similar appeal two months earlier.
OFA’s focus on the bill clashed with the political goals of some in the party. Democratic lawmakers in competitive districts objected when the group ran campaign-style ads calling for passage of the health-care overhaul. State party officials griped that an arm of the Democratic National Committee was spending time and money on a legislative fight, rather than winning elections.
Rhode Island Democratic Party Chairman William Lynch sent a letter in the fall of 2009 to several party leaders, citing “numerous Democratic state chairs throughout the country who were not, frankly, overly enthused by the plans to unleash OFA across the country.”
An OFA document reports 1.5 million phone calls and 550,000 letters sent to lawmakers advocating for the health bill. Even with the intra-party grumbling, Messina said the advocacy made a difference because the group “had to hold Democrats together.”
Yet polling showed they lost the public.
An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll taken in April 2009 showed that one-third of Americans said Obama’s health care changes were a good idea, 26 percent said they weren’t, and 34 percent weren’t sure. Nine months later, the same poll showed disapproval had jumped to 45 percent -- capturing virtually all the movement from those who hadn’t formed an opinion in April.
That sentiment sent Democrats into the midterm elections at a disadvantage; they lost 63 House seats, suffering their worst electoral defeat in more than seven decades.
“It’s hard to do legislative advocacy out of the DNC because you’re lobbying members, you’re pushing them on stuff,” Messina said. “And the first thing they’re going to do is call the chair, call the White House and say, ‘I’m a member of the DNC, why are you doing this?’”
Messina said the new OFA will focus on what it does well: grassroots organizing and technology.
It’s leasing the Obama campaign’s e-mail list and part of its data set -- information about individual voters’ top issues. OFA runs Obama’s Facebook page, “liked” by 35 million people, and his Twitter account, with almost 29 million followers.
Since the group was announced in January, 1.5 million people have volunteered to help, Messina said, by holding a policy-oriented house party, signing a petition in support of gun control, or other activities.
Thus far, the new OFA, claiming 4 million volunteers, is suffering some startup challenges.
Obama campaign volunteer Herman Galut, a freelance reporter, held a gun policy discussion last week at his apartment in Alexandria, Virginia. It was advertised through OFA’s events page. Two people attended.
They talked for an hour about how to garner support for gun-control legislation, deciding they needed to contact senators to press for support and perhaps write letters to the editors of local newspapers. Neither of the two women who attended considered themselves OFA members, though both had volunteered for the president’s re-election.
“They send me e-mails saying, ‘Don’t you want to keep giving us money?’” said Anne Haynes, a health educator. “And I wrote them back saying, ‘No!’”
“Maybe we can work with them without being officially part of them,” suggested Mary Abahazy, who is unemployed. “I guess I’m just not really sure what OFA is.”
In addition, the lawmakers they are trying to prod into support for gun legislation say they aren’t hearing much from the group.
“Members need to know that their constituents will stand with them,” said Representative Mike Thompson of California. He said one of his California colleagues -- he declined to identify which one -- won’t put his name on the bill even with polls showing 96 percent support from his district.
“He told me,” Thompson said, “‘I’m just not getting any calls on this.’”