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Foreword: Organizing Baselines




T

here are no baselines.

President Obama came into the White House with the largest, most wired supporter network in American history.1 Many observers anticipated that the Obama administration would tap the organizing and technological successes of his innovative campaign to revolutionize governing.2 Since the inauguration, Obama’s initial experiments contacting and mobilizing his supporter network have been compared to the campaign’s performance during the peak of the election season,3 or to outreach innovations by other U.S. presidents,4 or even to conventional lobbying campaigns.5

None of these comparisons, however, provide a very relevant baseline for political organizing. No President has ever managed the federal government while simultaneously attempting to lead a wired supporter network that can talk to itself, and organize itself, on a local and potentially national scale.6 While many Presidents do try to speak directly to the public by routing around Congress and the media, no President has possessed such a massive, interactive list of supporters.7 Furthermore, no President has ever converted a winning campaign’s volunteer network into an organization devoted to enacting a national agenda.

On January 17, 2009, one year ago, the Obama for America Campaign was converted into Organizing for America (OFA),8 and incorporated as an arm of the Democratic National Committee.9

This report focuses on OFA’s work during the first year of the Obama administration. The objective is to better understand this unprecedented attempt by a President to build a “governance organizing” model,10 and to assess the experiment on its own terms. The report is designed as a resource for practitioners and observers of political organizing, both in the specific context of OFA and broader implications for developments in organizing, new media and grassroots outreach in the digital era.

It is organized in sections that can be read separately, enabling readers to go directly to sections that are most relevant, while the divisions separate primary reporting from broader analysis. All sources in the report are quoted on background to encourage candor.11 Interviews with individuals are cited for their qualitative value; they are not presented, and should not be interpreted, as representative of broader public opinion. (See the appendix for more information on methodology.)

The first section reviews OFA’s activities in 2009, which have been covered and discussed only sporadically by most media and political observers. This section includes a detailed chronology of OFA work for readers who are unfamiliar with OFA, in order to begin with a clear archival record, particularly in the health care effort. Readers who are more familiar with this recent history, however, may prefer to peruse Section One briefly and focus more on the following sections.

The second section breaks new ground by soliciting and exploring new reactions to OFA’s 2009 work among three salient stakeholder groups: Congressional staff, former staff for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, and members and volunteers of OFA. Through background interviews and survey interviews with selected OFA members, this original reporting provides a window into the views of some stakeholders and participants.

The third section provides a broader analysis of this new reporting on OFA, and explores areas for potential further debate and inquiry into OFA and its new organizing model.

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1 The scale of Obama’s supporter list dwarfs precedents in both parties. The list was about five times the size of the DNC’s list in 2008. It is also far larger than the organic segment of the RNC’s list – the people who signed up as supporters of the RNC or Republican candidates. The RNC’s list also includes purchased emails from websites and media organizations such as Human Events and The Weekly Standard, totaling 12 million in all. “The best e-mail lists in politics,” Kenneth P. Vogel, Politico, May 24, 2009. http://dyn.politico.com/printstory.cfm?uuid=74A3DCF4-18FE-70B2-A89117770273219E

2 See, e.g. “Web Experts: Obama's Vision for E-government Will Take Work,” Grant Gross, PC World, December 12, 2008. http://www.pcworld.com/article/155413/web_experts_obamas_vision_for_egovernment_will_take_work.html

3 See. e.g. “Initial response to Obama's grassroots appeal: It's a bust,” Frank Greve, McClatchy Newspapers, February 6, 2009 (comparing attendance at OFA’s policy house party events in 2009 to larger crowds generated “before the election”). http://www.mcclatchydc.com/227/story/61724.html

4 See, e.g. “ Fireside Chat 2.0,” John Dickerson, Slate, March 16, 2009 (comparing Obama’s online outreach to FDR’s radio addresses, a common theme among political journalists). http://www.slate.com/id/2212898/ Also see “Using Community Organizing to Run a Country,” Neal Peirce, Washington Post Writers Group, Sunday, November 23, 2008.

5 See, e.g. “As Health Bill Is Delayed, White House Negotiates,” David M. Herszenhorn and Jeff Zeleny, New York Times, July 24, 2009.

6 David Plouffe notes that the campaign’s technological networks connected a “remarkably” high portion of supporters to each other, and to the campaign, for direct information. He writes that the email list enabled the campaign to "communicate directly with no filter to what would amount to about 20 percent of the total number of votes [needed] to win - a remarkably high percentage." “The Audacity to Win,” David Plouffe at 364, Viking (2009).

7 About 69 million people voted for Obama on Election Day. A major portion were connected to the campaign online: 13 million by email; five million on independent social networks; two million on the campaign network (MyBO); over one million by text message. “Obama Raised Half a Billion Online,” Jose Antonio Vargas, WashingonPost.com, November 20, 2008. http://voices.washingtonpost.com/44/2008/11/20/obama_raised_half_a_billion_on.html

8 All references to “OFA” in this report refer to Organizing for America. Obama’s presidential campaign, Obama for America, also has the same acronym. The campaign website, barackobama.com, was converted into the OFA website.

9 Then President-Elect Obama first announced the decision in a January 17 video, “Barack Announces Organizing for America,” distributed through the presidential campaign’s YouTube channel, BarackObamadotcom. “[OFA] will build on the movement you started during the campaign,” Obama says in the video, adding, “As President, I will need the help of all Americans to meet the challenges that lie ahead.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WfGNgacysHg Also see “Obama For America Becomes Organizing For America,” Marc Ambinder, TheAtlantic.com, January 17, 2009. http://marcambinder.theatlantic.com/archives/2009/01/obama_for_american_becomes_org.php

10 Governance organizing for lobbying is discussed in contrast to conventional organizing around movement or electoral objectives.

11 Previously public statements are simply quoted and cited by name.