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A Keeper of the List

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, December 17 2010

Here's a bit more on that Sam Graham-Felsen op-ed in the Washington Post, the one on the relationship between Obama and his grassroots base. A Democrat with deep roots in new media suggests that a few lines near the end of Graham-Felsen's piece deserve further consideration. Here's them:

Obama needs a senior adviser whose job is to be a liaison to the movement that elected him. This person needs to be in the room in senior-level strategy meetings, asking: How is this going to impact the list? What message will this send to the grass roots?

That source sets where Organizing for America finds itself in the context of the history of new media's role in Democratic presidential politics, where the 2004 Dean online team made news for being metaphorically and physically at the center of that campaign. From there, what happened on the Obama '08 was considered a real advancement from the new media perspective, where the team in Chicago led by Joe Rospars took an aggressive role in managing the campaign's relationship with the grassroots base, a base that was symbolized by the email list that Graham-Felsen cites at about 13 million members.

But, as Ari Berman recounts in his book Herding Donkeys, cultivating that relationship meant protecting that list from those who might see an online base as simply a ready source of fundraising dollars or an email lists as simply a really efficient way to blast out emails. Beyond fending off the advances of other departments, managing that relationship is also complicated by the fact that it might require being honest and open about developments and decisions even when they might anger the base -- like when Obama himself blogged a response to critics of his stance on FISA. In the case of the campaign, defending new media's role as "liaison to the movement," to steal a phrase from Graham-Felsen, "didn't always earn Rospars fans inside the building. "As the campaign grew, Rospars viewed himself as a dogged protector of Obama's grassroots brand," writes Berman. "He was usually a curt and icy presence at headquarters, stubbornly persistent and not very popular with the other departments."

With the '12 campaign now on the horizon, Organizing for America has recently seen the departure of staffers from the new media department; as I noted yesterday, Natalie Foster, director of the department, recently ended her time at the DNC, replaced by OfA creative director Lucas Fleischer.