Conclusion: 13 Million Emails Later
espite the tremendous interest in Barack Obama’s successful presidential campaign, the American political establishment has not closely followed or assessed the unusual experiment that OFA began in 2009. In part, Washington was focused on more pressing political developments, from the financial crisis to terrorism, while the political discourse often prioritizes message and money over grassroots activity. It is far too early to draw any final conclusions about OFA, but several themes emerge in this report that may inform deeper public discussion and further inquiry into governance organizing in the digital age:
- OFA successfully mobilized and sustained a new corps of super-activists between election cycles in 2009, according to cumulative participation estimates and OFA members interviewed for the report. This kind of governance activism is unusual for the national political parties – and has never been achieved at this frequency, or with such a massive, direct communications network.
- OFA focused on two priorities in its first year: Lobbying for health care reform, which constituted 44% of the group’s member communications; and community maintenance, aimed at sustaining the social capital and community networks developed during the presidential campaign, which constituted about 10% of communications.
- Congressional staff in both parties say OFA has mobilized constituent lobbying, but do not say OFA was a major or powerful force on Capitol Hill in its first year. Congressional aides do not think OFA is changing Members’ votes.
- Some former staff for Obama’s presidential campaign contend that the White House did not prioritize grassroots organizing in 2009.
- While noting that OFA faces a large challenge in converting a campaign network into lobbying activities, some former Obama campaign staffers say OFA’s programs are not targeting Congress effectively, or providing sufficiently diverse engagement opportunities for OFA members
- Among Obama supporters interviewed, four different types of OFA members seem to be emerging:
- Super-activists: These supporters seize on governance activism opportunities, often volunteering at rates that rival campaign season.
- Critical participants: Engaged and critical, these activists volunteer for OFA while voicing skepticism on some policy and strategy.
- Supportive bystanders: These OFA members intensely back Obama, but decline current volunteer opportunities. Some say they do not feel needed by OFA programs, others say they are simply busy.
- Former members: These people unsubscribed from OFA in 2009. Most interviewed said that they still back Obama.
- OFA’s strategy of waging a permanent field campaign to pressure Congress has not drawn complaints among congressional staff interviewed for the report of improper executive pressure on the legislative branch. If anything, Obama allies were more concerned that the President did not use his political operation to intercede more forcefully with Congress in 2009.
- OFA often functioned as essentially a single-issue lobbying organization in its first year. It will almost certainly turn towards another issue or issues in 2010 – a decision that may have a profound impact on the participation, sustainability and flexibility of its programs during the rest of Obama’s tenure.
- With White House backing, OFA could explore legislative strategies that are more targeted or confrontational; or organize around a range of policies; or prioritize issues to “change how Washington works” such as political and campaign finance reform.
- OFA could also empower members to set more local and legislative strategy, and make OFA a platform to democratize the DNC’s committee and superdelegate structure.
OFA has developed an experimental precedent for a new type of policy field campaign. Over the long-term, if it successfully mobilizes and sustains a large, permanent volunteer program, the model is likely to endure for its political benefits. If it successfully impacts legislative action in the future, the model will likely endure for its governing utility. And if OFA eventually manages to do both, the organization could raise the stakes of modern policymaking, establishing a new template for political parties’ efforts to organize mandates and enact their legislative agendas.
All interviews for the report were conducted on background to encourage candor. Interviews with congressional staff and former Obama presidential campaign staff were conducted by telephone. OFA members and volunteers were initially surveyed through a battery of questions online, and some participated in follow-up phone interviews. Initial OFA members and volunteers for geographic diversity and a range of engagement levels. Through a snowball sample, those respondents were asked for recommendations of other OFA members. OFA members were contacted through several approaches, including directly via email by the author, and indirectly with introductions from politically active Obama supporters, and indirectly via solicitations on social networks. Congressional offices were selected to reflect a range of experiences, including Members on both sides of the health care debate, from both parties, and Members from “split districts” (Republicans in districts won by Obama and Democrats in districts won by McCain.)
Some congressional and former campaign staff directly declined to be interviewed. The two most common explanations were that the person did not feel well-informed about OFA’s activities, or that political sensitivities prevented participation. Among all three stakeholder groups, some potential interviewees simply did not respond to interview requests. OFA officials discussed some research inquiries, but declined repeated requests to make management and field staff available for background interviews.
All interviews with individuals are discussed for their qualitative value; they are not presented, and should not be interpreted, as representative of a segment of public opinion.
Ari Melber is a contributing editor at the Personal Democracy Forum and the Net movement correspondent for The Nation magazine. During the 2008 general election, he traveled with the Obama Campaign on special assignment for The Washington Independent. Melber’s reporting and analysis of politics and technology has been widely cited by news organizations, such as the The Washington Post, New York Times, The Week, Washington Times, Wired.com and Wall Street Journal Online, among others, and in over a dozen nonfiction books, including “Typing Politics,” “The American Elections of 2008,” and “Sticks and Stones: How Digital Business Reputations Are Created Over Time.” He has been a featured speaker at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society; George Washington University’s Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet; Yale’s Political Science Department; Columbia University; Democracy for America; Blogging Liberally; and Netroots Nation. Melber received a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and a J.D. from Cornell Law School, where he was an editor of the Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy. (Contact via www.arimelber.com)
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