Kennedy said victory has a thousand fathers. For Obama, it’s more like 13 million.
"Thank you, Organizing for America," blared a Monday morning email from President Obama to his massive supporter list. At OFA, the Obama campaign network that was rolled into the Democratic National Committee, staffers said their lobbying efforts have paid off.
"We really laid everything on the line for health reform the past couple weeks – phone calls, letters, e-mails, rallies and other public events – and countless personal conversations between our volunteers and state staff and their Congressional leaders," said an OFA official after the bill passed. "We’re feeling good that our actions – including countering the Tea Party people and consistently outnumbering them in districts around the country – really kept us in the game while we were getting the votes," the official told The Nation.
OFA’s impact has been questioned both within and beyond the party, and few expected its organizing program to work as successfully for governing as it did during campaign season. For parts of the health care fight, the White House largely barred OFA from acting where it could be most effective — pressuring Republicans and wobbly Democratic members of Congress. In the homestretch, however, the numbers and coverage suggest that OFA was able to channel grassroots support for the bill in effective and even confrontational ways.
In just the final ten days of the legislative fight, OFA aides said they drove over 500,000 calls to Congress. The group also executed over 1,200 events during that period, about 100 per day, and mobilized a novel program for over 120,000 supporters to call other Obama fans in key districts to fan local enthusiasm for the bill — a first for either national party. These are massive numbers. OFA has actually been turning out impressive field figures for some time, as I’ve reported, their struggle has been converting turnout into impact on the Hill. Now, OFA is pointing to examples of votes that switched in response to the field, like Rep. Brian Baird — a metric that organizers could not cite a few months back.
While legislators rarely say their vote changed because of constituent calls, Baird cited the outpouring from his district, which ran 57 percent in favor reform, as a factor in his decision. The impact on Baird, an unpredictable Democrat retiring from a swing district that has backed both Bush and Obama in presidential cycles, suggests the kind of area where OFA may have more leverage.
The OFA official said its legislative targeting was highly "strategic," coordinating intelligence from congressional leadership with political outreach to a targeted member’s office, and layering that grasstops approach with "personal" lobbying on the ground. It was not the only factor, of course. Baird was retiring and, like fellow vote-shifter Dennis Kucinich, he got old fashioned attention from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. In fact, Obama’s private meeting with Baird about his vote was the only time the 12-year House veteran has ever met with a president.
Still, a top-down squeeze is less potent when legislators think they’ll catch hell back home for backing the President. Baird and Kucinich were facing consistent pressure from the top-down and bottom-up. It’s an approach we might see more often from the White House.