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Using Obama's Movement, or Losing It

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, December 17 2010

Sam Graham-Felsen has an op-ed in the Washington Post today that makes the case that Team Obama has, since its assumption of the presidency back in 2009, done a poor job at keeping up a relationship with the "broad coalition" of people represented by the campaign's email list, reported to be some 13 million members strong. Here's a taste:

Obama has made it clear that, for the most part, his administration isn't seriously interested in deploying this massive grass-roots list - which was once heralded as a force that could reshape politics as we know it - to fight for sweeping legislative change. It's a shame. In the few instances that the White House has meaningfully engaged the grass roots, OFA has shown that it has real clout. It's possible that the health-care bill, limited though it was, would not have passed were it not for decisive action from OFA in the final hours. When OFA members were finally asked to contact other Obama supporters in key legislative districts and after congressional offices were flooded with phone calls, letters and personal visits, several of the final holdouts in Congress were swayed to support the bill. Imagine if that aggressive, bottom-up approach had happened earlier in the process.

Other folks have offered similar critiques. See Ari Melber in this space, for example. There's a little added punch in the fact that Graham-Felsen was once part of the Obama operation. He served as the campaign's chief blogger. And there's something to be said for making the case right in the Washington Post. But what particularly jumps out of Graham-Felsen's piece, to me at least, is that he points out that there might be political malpractice in the fact that Obama, as President, has only engaged with that base in fits and starts. Here's more Sam:

Obama needs twice as much grass-roots support in the next election -- and he's not going to get it by sidelining his supporters. If he continues to play politics as usual, Obama risks alienating not just the left but anyone who believed in the promise of bringing change to Washington.

In a way, it's kinda like having a nice fine car that you keep to drive only on special occasions -- only when you get into it that once a year you find that the engine won't start and there are dead pigeons in the back. Or something.

There's a certain irony in all Graham-Felsen's criticism. Organizing for America often gets critiqued as little more than an re-election campaign in waiting for Barack Obama. That framing might be somewhat unfair, and overlook the work that volunteers have indeed done over the last couple of years, all across the country. But anyone looking to bolster the case for that idea in their minds can find evidence. Some of it is trivial. Organizing for America's website, as I never tire of pointing out, is still housed at BarackObama.com. (OrganizingforAmerica.com does now exist, but it gets automatically redirected to the Obama-branded site.) I once asked some high-ranking OfA staffers why, and was told that Obama, the man, is still the vessel for this movement, even if he is the President of the United States. But some of it is more substantive, like the decision during the transition to house Organizing for America inside the Democratic National Committee. Or even more so, the seeming reluctance to call in the troops during sensitive policy debates, like the on-going congressional battle over tax cuts, where Obama's army would likely find themselves out of step with Obama, the president.

And a situation like the tax cuts battle can lead you to think that the notion of a legitimate hybrid grassroots-presidential movement might not be tremendously plausible to begin with. The timing of events and the agenda of the White House have produced a few big meaty policy issues where Obama and the grassroots can confidently line up on the same side. Don't Ask Don't Tell, for example. Or the DREAM Act. But being President of the United States for Barack Obama has involved considerable wrangling in the weeds. Obama has shifted and negotiated during the congressional process over extending the Bush tax cuts and what Democrats might expect to get out of the deal. Can we ever really imagine that we might have a political base stand utterly opposed to a central policy idea -- like that there ever possibly might be an extension of tax cuts for wealthy Americans during a difficult economic time -- while the President of the United States who's supposed to be leading that movement making concessions against that ideal? There seems to be a reason why pairing "grassroots" and "directed by the White House" can seem a little funny in the mouth.

Two years into all these, a strange possibility emerges: there's a chance that President Obama might have been better off setting his movement free, and then waiting to see if it came back to him.

Give Sam a read.

See also: Our Micah Sifry on "The Obama Disconnect"