Will Obama Use His Campaign List to Break The Filibuster?

Will Obama Use His Campaign List to Break The Filibuster?

Will Obama Use His Campaign List to Break The Filibuster?

There’s a sleeping giant on the sidelines of the most important legislative fight in the next four years.


How many Obama campaign volunteers want to keep organizing to help push President Obama’s agenda in his second term?

At least 800,000.

That is the number of people who, after months of campaigning and hundreds of e-mails, still hit reply to a post-election survey from the Obama campaign and said they “want to keep volunteering.” Another 100,000 said they are interested in running for office someday, according to Obama field director Jeremy Bird.

These kind of numbers are inherently inflated. In organizing, there is always a gap between interested responses and the “hard count” of activists who actually show up to volunteer. (It’s like any party—the RSVP list is usually larger than the actual attendance.) Over the past five years, however, the Obama campaign built a formidable operation integrating web and field turnout.

After losing last month, even top Republicans associated with the Romney campaign conceded that Obama’s celebrated ground game was very effective and very “real.”

That’s more than Republican congressional leaders will concede about Obama’s mandate. It is also why Obama’s networked base—tens of millions of supporters online and the 800,000 super-activists who just RSVP’d for more volunteering—could be pivotal to his second term.

The future of OFA is a sensitive issue in Obama-land. Since the election, I spoke to several Obama staffers and a White House official about what OFA will do in the second term. (None would comment on the record.) While it’s understandably too early for OFA to map out its entire strategy—and they have little political incentive to do so publicly—it looks like OFA will begin by backing up the president’s position on the "fiscal cliff."

The campaign has already e-mailed out an infographic that supporters can share. It argues that the president’s budget proposals are better for the economy than the GOP’s austerity plan.  Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager, said at a post-election forum that OFA will probably ask supporters to pressure their members of Congress soon.  Some Obama officials also told me the fiscal cliff is the first organizing priority right now. That makes some sense, since Washington won’t talk about anything else until Christmas anyway.

But OFA could also go bigger than echoing the president’s position on a single issue—be it healthcare or the budget. It could pick big, strategic fights over how Washington works. There is a big one coming up, in fact.

As every newspaper reader, liberal activist or parliamentary junkie knows, the overarching barrier to most of Obama’s agenda is the abuse of the filibuster in the Senate. In fact, several of Obama’s second term priorities are not ideas in search of a majority—they are majorities in search of an up-or-down vote.

The Dream Act and the DISCLOSE Act, to name two, had majorities in both chambers during Obama’s first term, but they were filibustered to death. They probably await a similar fate unless the filibuster is reformed.

Some Democrats are trying to do just that, however, when the new Senate begins in January. Unlike the fiscal cliff debate, this reform faces the biggest opposition from other Democrats. Which brings us back to organizing.

While Obama supporters have some leverage over Republicans in certain House districts, they have far more leverage over Democratic senators, who need to maintain the Obama coalition for their next election. And for many Democratic activists, reforming the obstructionist, undemocratic Senate Rules has become a litmus test for whether you are serious about “change.” With OFA’s grassroots muscle—as the most effective field program in politics—and the president’s leadership, a pressure campaign might actually convert enough old-school Senate Democrats to support reforming the rules.  

About nine Democratic senators are currently on the fence about reforming the filibuster. Several are from bright blue states where OFA is strong and Obama won by large margins, such as California, Michigan and Hawaii, Obama's birthplace.

The White House recently said it generally supports the rule changes, and Vice President Joe Biden will be gaveling in the new Senate (given the vice president’s official role as Senate president). But a White House official declined to comment on whether it would fight on this issue or engage the grassroots.

There are six weeks left. If Democrats don’t rally a majority, and Senate Republicans are allowed to continue obstructing most legislation by abusing the filibuster, then on January 20, much of President Obama’s second-term agenda will effectively be dead on arrival.

The White House should be worried about falling off that cliff.

John Nichols argues, "Don't Eliminate the Filibuster, Restore it."

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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