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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

2012 Challenge: Mobilizing Obama’s Dormant Coalition

Despite all of the grumbling about Obama dissing his progressive base, the more serious mistake is the Administration’s failure to mobilize the Organizing for America (OFA) grassroots network represented by 13 million email addresses, says Obama’s chief campaign blogger, Sam Graham-Felsen, in his WaPo article “Why is Obama leaving the grass roots on the sidelines?

Obama entered the White House with more than a landslide victory over Sen. John McCain. He brought with him a vast network of supporters, instantly reachable through an unprecedented e-mail list of 13 million people. These supporters were not just left-wing activists but a broad coalition that included the young, African Americans, independents and even Republicans – and they were ready to be mobilized.
…Yet at seemingly every turn, Obama has chosen to play an inside game. Instead of actively engaging supporters in major legislative battles, Obama has told them to sit tight as he makes compromises behind closed doors.

Graham-Felsen cites the example of the tax cut battle, in which an OFA spokesman said the network would be mobilized when the time is “ripe.” But it didn’t happen. Then there was the health care battle, in which OFA members were encouraged to push for generalized “reform,” instead of focusing on the public option, and Graham-Felson notes that he was urged to contact his senator, who was already a supporter, rather than target supporters of a centrist in another state, “who was blocking reform.”
OFA’s story is one of missed opportunities made more regrettable by its great potential, as Graham-Felson explains:

Obama has made it clear that, for the most part, his administration isn’t seriously interested in deploying this massive grass-roots list – which was once heralded as a force that could reshape politics as we know it – to fight for sweeping legislative change. It’s a shame. In the few instances that the White House has meaningfully engaged the grass roots, OFA has shown that it has real clout. It’s possible that the health-care bill, limited though it was, would not have passed were it not for decisive action from OFA in the final hours. When OFA members were finally asked to contact other Obama supporters in key legislative districts and after congressional offices were flooded with phone calls, letters and personal visits, several of the final holdouts in Congress were swayed to support the bill. Imagine if that aggressive, bottom-up approach had happened earlier in the process.

OFA’s future can be much brighter, provided the Administration makes a commitment to deploy it more forcefully going forward, and the stakes are high:

If the White House wants to keep its grass-roots supporters at bay during major legislative fights, that’s its choice. But there’s a larger problem looming.
Obama needs this list in 2012 – and he needs its members to dig much deeper than in the last election. The Citizens United ruling has allowed campaigns to become an unprecedented corporate cash free-for-all – and Obama will likely need to raise far more than $500 million from the grass roots to be competitive.
While Obama’s political team intensely focuses on independents, the grass-roots list seems like an afterthought. Every time Obama chooses to compromise behind closed doors, and keeps OFA quiet, he might win over a few independents. But he’s also conveying a message that the grass roots doesn’t really matter, that the bottom-up ethos of his candidacy doesn’t apply to his presidency.
On Thursday, Obama and White House staff met with a group of OFA volunteers who presented survey data and anecdotes on the state of the grass-roots base since the midterm elections. This is a positive sign, but the White House should move beyond gestures. Obama needs a senior adviser whose job is to be a liaison to the movement that elected him. This person needs to be in the room in senior-level strategy meetings, asking: How is this going to impact the list? What message will this send to the grass roots?
Obama needs twice as much grass-roots support in the next election – and he’s not going to get it by sidelining his supporters. If he continues to play politics as usual, Obama risks alienating not just the left but anyone who believed in the promise of bringing change to Washington.

It’s critical, not only for the Administration, but also for Democratic prospects in coming elections that the OFA network list be updated and its members be fully engaged in legislative struggles, as well as election campaigns.

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