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Where OFA Belongs in the Fight: Health Care

BY Tom Watson | Saturday, January 31 2009

Elections are simple (in theory) and for the vast majority of participants in any campaign, a single action is requested: a vote for the candidate. A smaller sub-set will give money. An even smaller group than that will actively organize and raise money.

An $800 billion stimulus package thrown into the teeth of a foundation-rattling recession is inherently a political challenge in terms of clear public messaging - and the votes that count live on Capitol Hill. Into that storm steps - timidly, I think - the post-election online arm of the Obama political operation, Organizing for America.

OFA2's call for house parties around the stimulus plan, driven by emails but not featured on the MyBo site (much of which is still, lazily, in campaign mode) seems a kind of half-hearted attempt to rally hard-core Obama supporters to how support for a stimulus package that no living American politician thinks is anywhere close to perfect - a bill that many progressive Democrats worry aloud about. Zephyr Teachout of Howard Dean repute predicts OFA's failure as a Presidentially-sanctioned tool of political persuasion: "It will fail because Obama--suiting a President--is not oppositional, conflict-driven, and not likely to pick out particular targets to be won over--all things that are likely to engage people."

That is undoubtedly true; and it also falls back on the standard successor to direct mail (the old Republican domain) - email blasts to a list, over "in the streets" participation. And a porky (though perhaps necessary) stimulus bill can never be a movement.

But here's something that can: universal health care for every American.

President Obama has been quiet on this particular campaign pledge during his early days in office (perhaps because the nation's economy is melting down), but it's still very much on the docket. Health care is, in my view, the perfect use for an OFA organizing campaign, combining in-person education events with regional organizing and GOTV work - which means turning legislators out this time around.

With universal health care punted slightly down the field (we hope), there's time to build an effective advocacy movement from the White House POV. Further, there are natural allies among advocacy groups, organized labor, and think tanks who could support a direct-to-the-people campaign.

In pushing specific health care legislation, which will surely be a large-scale battle, OFA can help move the ball - one of its main purposes is to "build the grassroots lobbying pressure arm of the movement for when tough legislative priorities need grassroots support," as blogger Al Giordano wrote today in a post that threw a forearm shiver shot at Teachout's piece here at techPrez (nothing like an old-fashioned lefty throw-down in the second week of a Democrat's term to warm the January blood):

"Would it be more ideal if those grassroots bases began organizing themselves, independent of the Obama organization?" asks Giordano, gadly publisher of the Narco News and a longtime organizer himself. "Well, of course it would. And some of that is going to happen." He suggests immigration reform as the perfect test for the Obama organization, but I still think health care in a deep recession with millions facing joblessness without access to doctors and hospitals has a better populist formula for cutting across all sectors of society the way the Obama campaign itself did.

In the comments section of Giordano's post, Teachout elaborates on her main point - that a sitting President is not - by definition - a movement:

I'm thrilled with Obama, and I think he will succeed. I also think lots of organizations sprung from the Obama campaign and inspired by it will succeed--and their autonomy may be necessary for their power, and when the real fights come, their power (expecially if it can be more progressive) will be critical. I don't think OFA is one of them--and OFA is DNC organization, nothing more or less. What I'm not thrilled about is an idea of self-government that puts the Presidency at the center of it...

With Republican brushing bi-partisanship from their pin-striped suits like so many January snowflakes on Capitol Hill, some outside muscle seems in order. While the OFA effort - "come to my house to talk about the stimulus - bring dessert!" - seems tame so far (I think the criticism is fair), a real coalition to bring tough issues directly to the people could be just the Rx for the looming healthcare battle. And a DNC arm that wields a big list of the core supporters - volunteers who believe in this President many times more than the average voter- in the service of that fight might be very welcome indeed.