Organizing for Action Chairman Jim Messina, who announced following critical coverage that the group would not accept donations from corporations, federal lobbyists or foreign donors. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak.)
What are we to make of Organizing for Action?
OFA—the direct descendant of those other OFAs, Obama for America and Organizing for America—has recently been drawing headlines and inspiring headaches. That’s because it’s an organization with multiple souls. On the one hand, OFA promises to finally do what the Obama team failed to four years ago: Engage and mobilize the campaign’s grassroots volunteer army into a potent force for fighting Republican obstructionism after the election. On the other hand, OFA itself is structured in a way that encapsulates much of what’s broken about our current politics: big-dollar donors trading money for access. Can OFA both exemplify our predicament and ameliorate it?
Last weekend, OFA drew scorching critiques from the editorial boards of the The Washington Post and the The New York Times. Both expressed understandable alarm over OFA’s funding structure: The plan is reportedly to raise half of the organization’s budget in donations of over $500,000, and to reward those donations with quarterly “advisory board” meetings between top donors and the president himself. The Post said the group “should be renamed Paying for Access.” The Times called the funding structure “nothing more than a fancy way of setting a price for access to Mr. Obama.” (The White House pushed back on the report on Monday.)
Common Cause President Bob Edgar was at least as harsh, saying last week that the new OFA “apparently intends to extend and deepen the pay-to-play Washington culture that Barack Obama came to prominence pledging to end.”
As both papers noted, the Obama strategists (including Obama for America Campaign Manager-turned-Organizing for Action Chairman Jim Messina) behind OFA have particular financial flexibility because they’ve organized the group as a 501(c)(4) “social welfare group,” exempt from many requirements under our broken system of campaign finance law. That’s a system that the president has repeatedly recognized needs reform.
All of this invites charges of hypocrisy (always a tailor-made media storyline) and there have been plenty. But the Obama team is facing a challenge that doesn’t lend itself to clear-cut answers: How can you effectively do combat within the system as it exists, while also fighting to transform it? How do you plot a course that’s neither unilateral disarmament against the Right, nor surrender to Politics-As-Usual?