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Hope for the Obama Network from Massachussetts

BY Zephyr Teachout | Wednesday, May 20 2009

There's a fantastic post about the OFA Massachussetts meeting on Bottom up Change yesterday.

I recommend reading the entire post--its rich and thoughtful, and gives me some real hope for creating power out of the network of people who initially came together for the Obama campaign. Massachussetts supporters, without DNC staff, created a 400+ person organizing event last weekend.

This event could become a model for groups in other states, showing that if you act, and build power, you will get attention. Jared concludes that the only way OFA can be effective is by connecting policy power to organizing power:

What this discussion left me thinking was that the only way OFA is going to be effective is if it is truly grassroots. There is always going to be some element of a top-down structure to OFA–or to any large organization, for that matter. However, there needs to be a groundswell of activity and support at the local level for people to get involved. I think that health care reform is an issue that will rally Obama’s base supporters because most of us feel passionately about it. But unless some of the grassroots’ policy concerns are taken into account by the President, there will not be the kind of intense activism at the local level that can make a difference in terms of passing legislation. For instance, many people in the audience Saturday wanted a single payer health care system and there was some disappointment that this was not on the table. But if the “public option” is taken off the table as well, I am doubtful that a large segment of Obama’s base will be motivated enough to spend time volunteering or donating to OFA.

Mitch Stewart, the head of OFA--by all accounts a lovely man and talented organizer--answered policy questions at the event by saying that OFA was not a policy organization and that organizers should use "other forums" for expressing policy concerns.

It sounds like the organizers present, though respectful, were not going to accept this description.

OFA, to be clear, is a branch of the DNC. It sounds like for now, the DNC imagines two streams of energy flowing into the party: the Democratic Party Committees and OFA. The local committees are necessarily policy shops as well as organizing platforms, but in many places are very weak on both fronts. OFA is imagined solely as a place for organizing pre-decided policy.

As I said in a talk the other week, this vision of OFA as simply implementing Obama's policy platforms might work were Obama a demagogue, the kind of leader who inflamed thoughtless passionate action. But he's not, and we are lucky he is not. Instead, he inspires thoughtful passionate action--he inspires a vision of citizenship in which policy and organizing cannot be separated.

The report from Massachussetts suggested to me that there are three possible futures for the network formerly known as the Obama campaign:

--It dissipates, with some significant number of people inspired by the campaign joining other groups
--It is explicitly joined to the Democratic Party throughout the country, and local democratic party operatives work with the new Obama-inspired to build strength
--Groups like OFA-MA use the next year, before dissipation, to find and create local grassroots groups that listen to and learn from, but do not directly follow, the direction of OFA

My biggest fear with OFA was that its existence would encourage formerly active members of the Obama campaign to sit and wait for direction, and then be somewhat nonplussed by the direction--its existence would actually get in the way of local progressive support for health care reform and other efforts. I think of it a little like a non-movement organization that sits on top of a movement, keeping the temperature down.

My biggest hope is now that more areas will act like OFA-MA, doing their own "listening tour" of the DNC leadership, and then acting independently, out of their own power.