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Obama's Networks and the Stimulus

BY Nancy Scola | Wednesday, January 28 2009

If you stop by our part of the Internet often, you'll know that here on techPres we've been interestedly tracking what would become of the energy, momentum, and -- perhaps most importantly -- the networks of people that drove the historic Obama presidential campaign. Recently, President Obama himself and senior campaign officials provided part of the answer by announcing the creation of Organizing for America, a "grassroots" organization that would continue to seek the change that powered the campaign.

But you can't help but notice something happening -- or rather, not happening -- this week. As Obama faces a major legislative battle over a multibillion dollar package intended to stimulate the struggling economy, his allies are not OFAers but congressional and business leaders. Those grassroots supporters haven't been called on to help craft or pass a bill that will likely shape America's economic future for decades to come. The message coming from Washington is a distinct, "No worries, we'll take care of this." Why is that?

Part of it might be mission fuzziness. Obama himself left the purpose of Organizing for America rather underdefined in his video introducing the organization. "As president," he said, "I will need the help of all Americans to meet the challenges ahead." But former campaign manager David Plouffe and Mitch Stewart, the new director of Obama for America, seemed in possession of great clarity. The purpose of OFA, as they tell it, is straightforward. The way Plouffe framed it is that the organization's purpose is to "work on the pressing issues facing the country: energy, the economy, health care [and] connect Americans to the debate here in Washington." Stewart was even more direct, saying the grassroots movement's mission is to "assist President Obama on the legislative issues so critical to our country." Stewart listed the same policy areas -- energy, health care, and the economy -- as Plouffe. That's no accident. The MyBarackObama community identified those topics as the areas they were most willing to get to work on.

So as Obama is determining, in collaboration with Congress, how the U.S. will approach the grave economic crises facing us, why hasn't he or Plouffe or Stewart put out a call for backup to the grassroots?

One part of the puzzle is that OFA and the DNC (where OFA has its home) and the White House new media team just isn't ready yet. Stewart has been in his job for less than a week, and DNC chair Tim Kaine barely more than that. The White House new media team is still working on getting to be fully functional. Organizing the grassroots will probably have to wait until after they figure out how to get press releases and briefing videos out in a timely fashion.

But a bigger part of the puzzle might be that Obama prefers to go it alone -- at least for now. Of course, Obama is by no means truly alone in the process. He's hardly scribbling out the stimulus package at his desk in the Oval Office. He's been working with congressional allies like David Obey and business allies like Eric Schmidt by his side. And we've all seen video of him trekking up to Capitol Hill for much-reported meetings with congressional Republicans. In a way, Obama is approaching the crafting of legislation in an ultra-traditional way. It's a bit of a throw back. Past presidents regularly sat down with congressional leaders to hammer out the country's future plans. Former President George W. Bush, no fan of Capitol Hill, preferred instead to take his show on the road, as with saw with his Social Security tour of the states in 2005.

Obama has likely gamed out the stimulus and made the decision that he's going to get what he wants and thinks the country needs by negotiating with congressional leaders and making savvy use of the press. (How savvy is the topic of another post. Obama's press relations haven't been completely smooth this first week. See Ari Melber's Politico piece from earlier today for more.)

And Obama might be thinking that his grassroots networks are an ace in his pocket, to be played only if it turns out he needs it.

He's proven himself pretty good at this sort of thing, so it probably makes sense to give him some benefit of the doubt that he knows what a resource he has in his grassroots, and how to relate to them in such a way that they don't turn against him.

That said, as plans for major investments in public transportation get hammered out in the stimulus, there's an "Urban Planners for Obama" group somewhere out there that is going untapped. For a campaign that so often told supporters, "This is in your hands," President Obama seems now to be saying "Don't worry, I've got this one covered."

He may. And he may well find exactly the stimulus package he wanted sitting on his desk for signature in the next few weeks. But when the time comes that he does decide he needs his networks, will they be around to answer the call?