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.
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.