The latest miniature controversy in the presidential campaign actually touches on an important idea.
“You can’t change Washington from the inside.”
That’s what Barack Obama said he learned as president, when questioned at a forum on Thursday.
Mitt Romney seized on the remarks, saying Obama has surrendered to the forces of Washington. Romney's aides are eager to cast Obama in his own “YouTube moment,” naturally, and challenge his commitment to “change.”
Obama is correct, of course, that fundamental reform and social change is not usually hatched by Washington insiders. That is not a controversial view. It’s the premise animating grassroots conservative activism from Grover Norquist to the Tea Party, which primaries Republicans who represent the 2-0-2 for too long.
You can’t really understand Obama’s relationship to the inside game, however, without digging into the weeds of his unusual experiment with a grassroots, outside game: the 2009 creation of Organizing for America (OFA), which was designed to extend his massive field army from the last campaign into a governing force.
That unusual effort never got much attention from political and media leaders, because fieldwork is considered boring. And it probably won’t get much attention now, even though Obama’s talk about how the outside game works suggests a key misperception about his first term. So while he was right about change, his follow-up explanation was puzzling. "You can only change it from the outside,” he added, “that’s how the big accomplishments like healthcare got done…because we mobilized the American people to speak out.… So, something that I’d really like to concentrate on in my second term is being in a much more constant conversation with the American people so they can help move some of these issues forward.”
News readers will recall that is simply not how healthcare was enacted. There was no mass mobilization or pressure on swing votes in Congress. The Washington Post's Ezra Klein, who reported on the process at the time, found Obama’s depiction “absurd.” He has a different memory :
The health-care process…was a firmly “inside game” strategy. There were backroom deals with most every major interest group and every swing legislator. There was the “cornhusker kickback” and the “Louisiana purchase.” There was a multi-month period during which the entire process ground to a halt so Senate Finance chair Max Baucus could negotiate with five of his colleagues in a room that no members of the press or public were allowed into.
And what was OFA, and its 13 million grassroots activists, doing at the time? The group did make healthcare reform one of the top priorities  of its first year:
There were more OFA communications to supporters about healthcare than any other [policy]; the most significant “asks” for volunteer activity were tied to the healthcare battle in Congress; [and] OFA’s most valuable resource—the President’s time—[was] spent primarily on OFA healthcare events.
This might sound like the very outside game that Obama is now touting. Yet the White House generally avoided asking the Obama activists to actually target wavering Democrats, or potentially nervous Republicans in Congressional districts that Obama won in 2008.
Instead, the strategy was to focus on the inside game. Supporters were asked to back healthcare reform at the broadest level, and thank members of Congress who already supported the president.
As one former Obama campaign staffer told me, when I was researching OFA for this report , it was “literally useless” to ask volunteers to call members of Congress who are “clearly going to support the president’s healthcare proposal.” The staffer explained that by contrast, a strong outside game would mobilize activists to show up in person at public events of moderate Republicans (not unlike the town halls that first sparked Tea Party outrage), but that OFA was probably “just not allowed to do that politically, by the White House, and that’s a shame.”
Why not? Because the outside pressure might “backfire,” and, to be sure, because it’s very hard to run the outside game out of the White House. As another former Obama official explained:
It’s complicated, because OFA is not a campaign—they are an arm of the White House…. The White House, it seems to me, Rahm and whomever else, [they don’t] give a crap about this email list and don’t think it’s a very useful thing. They want to do stuff the delicate way—the horse-trading, backroom talks, one-to-one lobbying. So they see it as more effective to get [Deputy Chief of Staff] Jim Messina on the phone with all these folks; the way to deal with this is to get on the phone. [They say] “unleashing a massive grassroots army is only going to backfire on us.”
That's a strong indictment, especially from someone sympathetic to Obama's goals and methods. My point here is not to rehash old debates about how healthcare—a policy achievement that eluded several other presidents—made it through Congress. But the president brought it up and, typically, the first attacks have mischaracterized the part he got right, that outside pressure is key, while missing the more interesting question, whether Obama really doesn't realize that healthcare was an inside job.