The Obama for America campaign assembled the largest activist and volunteer network in history: 13 million email addresses, 4 million donors, 2 million registered members of my.BarackObama.com, tens of thousands of trained activists, five thousand paid staff, and countless local volunteers. The campaign connected supporters at the grassroots level, gave them access to cutting edge technologies, and empowered them to organize on their own initiative. These individuals constituted Obama’s core group, and their dedication to the candidate was palpable. Obama credited them with his victory.
But the morning after the election, the million dollar question was what would happen to this massive, diverse group, now that victory was achieved? Clearly, Obama couldn’t just tuck his database away for four years and expect it to be ready to go again in 2012. Something had to be done to keep the network active, nurture it, and perhaps even grow it. After all, this organizational juggernaut offered more than a head-start on the reelection campaign: it was also a potentially useful resource for governing – it represented a new kind of “power tool” for the president in his effort to turn the promise of his campaign into a reality.
As Melber points out, however, converting a campaign organization into an instrument for governing was no easy task, and its prospects were uncertain: could momentum be sustained in the absence of an electoral campaign? How much of the network would want to be engaged in policy-oriented campaigns? How would disagreements over policy be handled?
The MoveOn.org model suggested that it could be done. But the Obama campaign was not MoveOn.org – it was, fundamentally, an organization designed to elect a candidate on November 4, 2008. Besides, Obama didn’t necessarily want his campaign network to become another MoveOn.org. By law, advocacy organizations must operate separately from the president and his party; if he followed the Moveon.org model, Obama would lose control of it.
Rather than tuck it away or set it free, Obama opted for a middle course. He folded it into the DNC as a quasi-independent entity, changed its name to Organizing for America (keeping the initials the same), and called it a “project” of the national party. It would share resources, staff, and strategy with the party while maintaining its ostensible “outsider” status. Its only public affiliation with the Democratic Party proper would appear in the fine print. This would allow OFA to be like Moveon.org in its activities while remaining within the president’s control.
Once these structural questions were settled, the real work began. But this is also when the curtains were drawn on the whole enterprise. The management of OFA became shrouded in mystery, as most party operations are. (Party activities are rarely designed in public, lest the opposition get wind of the strategy.) What policy priorities would OFA emphasize? How would the network be nurtured? How often would the leadership communicate with the members? What kinds of activities would OFA engage in (lobbying Congress, mobilizing at the grassroots, recruiting candidates and doing other traditional party-oriented work, or what)? How hard would OFA push elected Democrats? Republicans?
The veil has been lifted with Ari Melber’s impressive report. Throughout 2009, Melber recorded with meticulous detail every piece of information that could be found on what OFA was up to. Not content with the slow leak of public information, however, Melber undertook his own investigative work, conducting original surveys and personal interviews with OFA members and volunteers, congressional staff, and former Obama campaign workers. The result is an exhaustively researched 74-page report that penetrates the entire OFA operation and examines it from different angles: from the perspective of insiders (OFA members and former campaign staff), outsiders (scholars and observers), and the targets of many OFA activities (members of Congress). It is, in short, a unique, insightful, and invaluable report.
One of the main selling points of Melber’s report is its careful documentation of OFA’s activities. But equally important, I would argue, are the questions it raises.
Melber explains that OFA represents something new in American history, and as such, it holds the potential to change the way politics is done in this country – or not! Will it? That is one question. But there are many others.
For example, what impact will OFA – and the OFA model – have on presidential power? As OFA makes adjustments and sharpens its operations, will it enhance the president’s power vis-à-vis Congress? Will it accelerate the shift in the balance of power between the branches that we have witnessed over the last century or so? If so, is this desirable? Do we really want to add more tools to the president’s arsenal? Those sympathetic with Obama’s agenda might say yes, but is this the kind of tool that you would want a President Palin to wield in 2013?
Melber does not seem to view OFA as an instrument of presidential power so much as a potentially powerful community-building enterprise, a generator of social capital, an agent of (small-d) democratic politics. He suggests that OFA has already had some positive effects in this area. But I can’t help but wonder: can the social-capital benefits of such a people-powered organization offset the potential dangers of enhanced presidential power? Can OFA’s community-organizing function also act as a check on the president and hold him more accountable to the people? How, and through what mechanisms? Presumably, much will turn on how top-down versus bottom-up OFA becomes. (Melber offers some interesting ideas for how to make it more bottom-up.)
Such concerns may be premature, of course, as OFA has yet to prove itself either as a major force of presidential power or as a major force for democratic integration. But both are open possibilities. It’s up to us to monitor its progress and debate its significance.
Melber raises many other kinds of questions, too: for example, can OFA improve upon its performance in the health care campaign? Can it be put to use on behalf of local Democratic campaigns in the fall? How will things change now that Plouffe is back in action? Why is Rahm Emanuel ambivalent about the whole operation? Will the Republicans copy OFA?
But these only scratch the surface. I hope we can get a good discussion going in this forum. Let the comments and questions begin!