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Looking Back at One Year of Organizing for America | The Nation

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Looking Back at One Year of Organizing for America

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This article is adapted from a new report about the first year of President Obama's Organizing for America program at the DNC. The entire report is available here: Year One of Organizing for America; The Permanent Field Campaign in a Digital Age.

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Ari Melber
Ari Melber
Ari Melber is The Nation's Net movement correspondent, covering politics, law, public policy and new media,...

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A year ago this weekend, Barack Obama's victorious campaign network was converted into Organizing for America (OFA), a new arm of the Democratic National Committee that lobbies and organizes for Obama's domestic agenda, a departure from the DNC's traditional electoral focus. That move marked the beginning of an unusual experiment.

No president has ever managed the federal government while simultaneously attempting to lead a wired supporter network that can talk to itself, and organize itself, on a local and potentially national scale. And while presidents have always attempted to reach the public by routing around Congress and the media, no previous administration has ever possessed such a massive, interactive list of supporters. In its first year, OFA has frequently communicated with its 13 million members, and mobilized hundreds of thousands to take concrete actions, from organizing local events to visiting and calling members of Congress. Is this another campaign?

Strategists and scholars have long defined the modern presidency as a "permanent campaign." The concept was most famously enunciated by President Carter's pollster, Patrick Caddell, who argued it was no longer possible to separate "politics and government." "Governing with public approval requires a continuing political campaign," Caddell wrote in 1976, in an influential transition memo for the new president. Sidney Blumenthal, a journalist who later served in the Clinton White House, wrote The Permanent Campaign in 1982, a book warning that presidential governance was sliding into a model of constant politicking--an "engineering of consent with a vengeance." Political scientists have sought to demonstrate these trends, measuring increases in campaign-style media and fundraising activity by recent presidents.

These analyses of the modern presidency, however, are premised on a view that defines "campaigning" as media messaging, political outreach and fundraising. In the current era, however, a key distinction is a new, permanent field campaign--contacting, organizing and mobilizing voters about governance between elections.

OFA marks the first time a political party has deployed a permanent field program with its own communications channel to contact and organize volunteers to advance a policy agenda between elections. The national parties' previous experiments with off-season field efforts were limited to electoral goals, like the "50 State Strategy;" gestures towards policy "campaigns" that did not include actual field mobilization; or "citizen corps" that attempted to advance general support for a President's agenda, but without a dedicated mass communications channel like email, or a coordinated national event program.

Within the first year of the Obama administration, by contrast, OFA deployed a paid staff in fifty states for an ongoing field policy effort. Based primarily on OFA, in fact, the DNC is on pace to assemble the largest paid staff in its history. Growing out of a remarkably vast campaign network and aided by breakthroughs in communications technology, OFA presents a novel opportunity for policy advocacy and party building.

Political scientist Daniel Galvin, who has studied "presidential party building" in the modern era, contends that OFA has fundamentally different assets and objectives than the conventional model of national political parties. While the traditional DNC is "charged with electoral-support responsibilities, such as aiding state and local parties, recruiting and supporting candidates," Galvin writes, "OFA's mandate is different: it is to carry out policy-publicity responsibilities, such as building support for the president's legislative agenda, articulating his ideas, and countering the opposition's attacks." This foundation presents high stakes for Obama and the Democratic Party in general, Galvin argues:

 

OFA itself makes Obama much better positioned to make serious party-building inroads than his predecessors ever were. None of his predecessors had such a well-organized and vibrant campaign organization, and none opted to fold what they did have into the DNC. Obama has already done so.... But because OFA holds the promise of so much organizational power, the stakes could not be higher. If Obama converts OFA into a multipurpose [policy and electoral] entity that can help the party enhance its myriad electoral operations at all levels, he can change the course of the Democratic Party's history. If he does not, he risks more than a loss of momentum: he risks falling behind a Republican Party that has not abandoned its own organizational party building even as it drifts...

 

Departing from electoral objectives is difficult, of course. A permanent field campaign to advance governing, rather than electioneering, requires rallying support for specific policy initiatives. It is harder to sell policy than candidates, which is why, after all, so many political campaigns focus on biography, values and symbolism over the content of candidates' actual platforms. Yet OFA has consolidated Democratic infrastructure with policy as the core focus of its first year, primarily healthcare, with an outreach strategy that essentially operates on two tracks.

At the broadest level, OFA does outreach and organizing to build social, diffused support for the administration's priorities. Through local events, meetings and petition drives, for example, OFA can try to boost the awareness, support and enthusiasm for specific initiatives. On this indirect track, a resulting increase in support might be demonstrated through turnout at events; citizen voices in letters to the editor; local media coverage; people's conversations with their neighbors; or even through national polling on support for Obama's agenda.

This approach can be conceived as "mandate support." It operates on the premise that presidents enact more of their agenda when their public mandate is large--or perceived to be large. In this model, a president aims to maintain his base not only for re-election (a political goal) but also because maintaining base support helps enact the administration's policies (a governing goal). While the traditional mechanism for such backing was through political, financial and media efforts, not sustained field organizing, the strategic framework is quite similar.

The other track for OFA is directly lobbying Congress. Obama supporters are asked to engage their members of Congress regarding the administration's agenda through phone calls, office meetings and local events. OFA typically encourages supporters to use a positive tone to voice support for a general administration plan or set of principles, such as "healthcare reform," without drawing more precise lines. (Some OFA volunteers find that approach vexing, since it's even harder to hold politicians accountable without detailed demands.) The posture ranges from encouraging members of Congress to vote for the administration's agenda, to thanking individual members for votes backing the administration, to pressing selected members who vote against key items on the agenda. Unlike many lobbying and advocacy groups, OFA's direct lobbying track generally avoided more confrontational postures towards elected Democrats in 2009.

Proponents of such field policy efforts contend that governance organizing expands the civic and political opportunities for engagement, providing citizens with a tangible way to volunteer and advocate beyond the confines of an electoral campaign. By tapping the interest in a popular president, (at least among his base), OFA can even recruit new governance activists who would not be as likely to engage the legislative process under the status quo, or through actions that focused on their individual member of Congress. (After all, most voters cannot even name their member of Congress.) And Obama's political allies tend to view OFA as a basic opportunity for supporters to advance the agenda they backed in the election.

According to OFA, in 2009, the governance organizing program attracted new volunteers who were not active during the campaign. More broadly, grassroots governance organizing, by either political party, might mitigate some of the distorted influences in the current political market. If the media and financial machinery of the modern presidential policymaking already operate a permanent campaign, a program engaging more regular citizens--as supportive volunteers or persuadable decision-makers--could restore some balance to a process that often focuses on media and financial advocacy more than pressure from grassroots activists.

Others caution that simply layering a field component over a permanent campaign model could actually heighten some problematic trends in civic life. The academic literature on permanent campaigns, and the increasing politicization of the entire federal government bureaucracy, raises this concern. "Campaigning is geared to one unambiguous, [competitive] decision point in time," argues one such critique, contrasting that dynamic to a governing ideal that would proceed more cooperatively. This argument, also reflected in public opinion that dislikes "partisan bickering," raises the prospect that constant campaigning fosters an adversarial, rather than collaborative, approach to governing.

A related concern focuses on the growth of the modern "plebiscitary presidency," in which presidents increasingly make appeals directly to the public, rather than working with the representative branch of government, especially after the Bush era. Fortifying that model with a powerful, national whip operation could further undermine Congress's autonomy, in this narrative.

And finally, there are practical politics. Many progressives and Obama allies are weighing whether OFA's first year provided an organizing program that is both effective and empowering for its members, with an eye towards the rest of Obama's tenure. Some former Obama campaign aides, for example, are concerned about whether OFA is maintaining the meaningful, successful relationships developed among Obama supporters during the presidential campaign.

So it's an interesting time to take stock. I recently interviewed OFA volunteers, Congressional staff and veterans of Obama's presidential campaign to tackle these questions--interested readers can find summary findings and the full report at this dedicated page: Year One of Organizing for America: The Permanent Field Campaign in a Digital Age. (There is also a live conversation on Twitter with this hashtag: #ofayear1)

If there is one certainty about OFA's future, it is that the organization's priorities will change in 2010. After a year devoted to healthcare reform, OFA must choose a new agenda to engage its members.

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