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After Obama 3.0, What Will 4.0 Look Like? TheAction.org Isn't Waiting for the Answer

BY Micah L. Sifry | Wednesday, November 21 2012

What next for the millions of people, tens of thousands of volunteers and several thousand staff who came together to propel Barack Obama to re-election? While public attention in Washington has turned to the so-called "fiscal cliff" negotiations and the cable news shows are now fixated on the violence in the Middle East, how this question is answered may be the most consequential of Obama's second term.

Will there be a real "outside" Washington strategy to put pressure on recalcitrant Members of Congress? Will they use the massive lists and online presence that were built around the campaign? Will the extraordinary machinery of tracking, targeting and mobilization that the campaign built be used to maximize such efforts? Will Obama supporters be given a say in what issues are prioritized? In short, if the 2012 re-election bid was "Obama 3.0," what will Obama 4.0 look like?

Right now the campaign's leadership is sorting out its thinking on these questions, drawing on the responses of hundreds of thousands of supporters who are filling out an online feedback survey. "There are conversations happening right now on how to do a better job this time," one insider told me. "We don't expect to raise the level of money we raised before, so it remains to be seen what kind of organizational capacity there will be." But this person asserted that the White House was going to take less of an inside-game approach to Washington than in 2009.

There's definitely reason to expect some change from the top. As author Ron Suskind, who had in-depth conversations with Obama for his book Confidence Men recently told the New Republic,

"One of the things that Obama understands is how in those first hundred days in 2009—and there was a lot of talk in the White House about this very thing—they just dropped the ball in terms of directing the Obama army. Not just the folks from the campaign, but the two million people who showed up at the Mall on Inauguration Day in absolutely freezing weather to cheer and to cry. The question is: Can Obama direct the participatory energies of the left in a way that will express power for him inside of the Capitol? He didn’t even try last time."

Indeed, on a conference call that the Obama campaign held with 30,000 of its core volunteers a week ago, Obama not only called on them to stay active, he added, according to a transcript posted by a DailyKos reader who recorded the call, "I am pledging to do a better job - even than we did in the first term - in making sure you guys stay in involved and that you know exactly what we’re doing.  That we’re giving you guys clear direction and talking points in terms of how we keep mobilizing across the country."

Meanwhile a broad coalition of progressive groups, joined by some current and former Obama campaign staff, have decided that unlike four years ago, they aren't going to wait this time for Obama to try to channel the grassroots momentum generated by his campaign, and they've launched a new vehicle called TheAction.org to step into the gap.

Cognizant of the lull in grassroots activity that occurred after the euphoria of Obama's 2008 victory, "A bunch of us got together to talk about what this should look like," one of the group's organizers told techPresident. "How can we harness that energy? This time, we knew that the fiscal/budget fight was coming next." The coalition, which counts participants from 26 states, found that ending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest two percent was a common theme they all could agree on.

"This isn't Obama 4.0 as far as I'm concerned," says this organizer. "The idea isn't that TheAction grows into something continuing," but just takes advantage of the focus on the "fiscal cliff" to engage local activists in targeting Republican members of Congress in their home towns, and then try to connect them with local organizations that work on other issues they care about.

TheAction.org doesn't have access to OFA's list or social media assets. Coalition members are taking advantage, though, of the end of the Obama campaign. "Wherever we know the campaign staffers, we've been just calling people, saying 'We know you are unemployed; what can you do to help get the message out? Are your volunteers asking what they can do next?'" People stepping off of local House and Senate races are also being tapped.

So far, TheAction has about 2300 followers on Twitter and nearly twice that many likes on Facebook, which are tiny numbers. But it's an influential bunch, including people like Ann Marie Habershaw (Obama '12 deputy director), Michael Slaby (Obama '12 CIIO), and Mike Moffo, a Vice President at SS&K who has been involved in creative projects on both Obama campaigns.

The group was publicly launched with a November 9 piece on Huffington Post by Kal Penn and Natalie Foster, respectively a former White House staffer involved in youth outreach (when he isn't acting in gross-out movies) and a former new media director for OFA who co-founded Rebuild the Dream. They described its origins as "some of the Obama campaign's top organizers…joining with a coalition of progressive groups -- the Common Purpose Project." That latter organization is essentially a liaison between the White House and progressive groups, run by Jon Carson.

Some aspects of what is unfolding now looks like it is actually coordinated with Obama's political team. A week ago, OFA national director Mitch Stewart ended that nation-wide conference call with 30,000 volunteers by urging them to sign up at TheAction.org. And the President's own recent statements on the coming budget and tax negotiations are explicit about "ensuring that taxes don't go up on 98 percent of all Americans" at the end of the year.

But participants in TheAction say they're not just bringing Obama staff and supporters into the effort. Says Michael Kink, the director of New York's Strong Economy for All, a group focused on income inequality and economic fairness, "I work with lots of different kinds of people--rank and file union members, Occupiers, homeless people with AIDS, Obama fans, and 'no-grand-bargain' suspicious Democrats." He likes that TheAction is a flexible vehicle which is "letting state and local people drive the actions the way it makes sense in their states to do. It's a starfish-y thing to do." (He also points out that the group's downloadable action kit includes the raw material, including .eps files, for local groups to repurpose to their own devices, an unusually geeky choice.)

It will be interesting to see what happens next, when Obama and his Republican adversaries really get down to work. If Obama offers a compromise that allows some of the Bush tax cuts for the top two percent to continue, what will TheAction's leaders and supporters do? The organizer I spoke to said their goal was "to make so much noise" that Obama won't cross that line.

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