Introduction: A New Permanent Campaign
trategists and scholars have long defined the modern presidency as a “permanent campaign.” The concept was most famously enunciated by President Carter’s pollster, Patrick Caddell, who argued it was no longer possible to separate “politics and government.” “Governing with public approval requires a continuing political campaign,”12 Caddell wrote in 1976, in an influential transition memo for the new President. Sidney Blumenthal, a journalist who later served in the Clinton White House, wrote “The Permanent Campaign” in 1982, a book warning that presidential governance was sliding into a model of constant politicking – an “engineering of consent with a vengeance.”13 Political scientists have sought to demonstrate these trends, measuring increases in campaign-style media14 and fundraising activity by recent Presidents.15
These analyses of the modern presidency, however, are premised on a view that defines “campaigning” as media messaging, political outreach and fundraising. In the current era, however, a key distinction is a new, permanent field campaign — contacting, organizing and mobilizing voters about governance between elections.
OFA marks the first time a political party has deployed permanent field program with its own communications channel to contact and organize volunteers to advance a policy agenda between elections.16 The national parties’ previous experiments with off-season field efforts 17 were limited to electoral goals, like the “50 State Strategy;” gestures towards policy “campaigns” that did not include actual field mobilization;18 or “citizen corps” that attempted to advance general support for a President’s agenda, but without a dedicated mass communications channel like email, or a coordinated national event program. 19
Within the first year of the Obama administration, by contrast, OFA deployed a paid staff in 50 states for an ongoing field policy effort. Based primarily on OFA, in fact, the DNC is on pace to assemble the largest paid staff in its history. 20 Growing out of a remarkably vast campaign network and aided by breakthroughs in communications technology, OFA presents a novel opportunity for policy advocacy and party building.
Political scientist Daniel Galvin, who has studied “presidential party building” in the modern era,21 contends that OFA has fundamentally different assets and objectives than the conventional model of national political parties. While the traditional DNC is “charged with electoral-support responsibilities, such as aiding state and local parties, recruiting and supporting candidates,” Galvin writes, “OFA’s mandate is different: it is to carry out policy-publicity responsibilities, such as building support for the president’s legislative agenda, articulating his ideas, and countering the opposition’s attacks.”22 This foundation presents high stakes for Obama and the Democratic Party in general, Galvin argues:
... OFA itself makes Obama much better positioned to make serious party- building inroads than his predecessors ever were. None of his predecessors had such a well-organized and vibrant campaign organization, and none opted to fold what they did have into the DNC. Obama has already done so... But because OFA holds the promise of so much organizational power, the stakes could not be higher. If Obama converts OFA into a multipurpose [policy and electoral] entity that can help the party enhance its myriad electoral operations at all levels, he can change the course of the Democratic Party’s history. If he does not, he risks more than a loss of momentum: he risks falling behind a Republican Party that has not abandoned its own organizational party building even as it drifts...23
Departing from electoral objectives is difficult, of course. A permanent field campaign to advance governing, rather than electioneering, requires rallying support for specific policy initiatives. It is harder to sell policy than candidates, which is why so many political campaigns focus on biography, values and symbolism over the content of candidates’ actual platforms. Yet OFA has consolidated Democratic infrastructure with policy as the core focus of its first year, primarily health care, with an outreach strategy that essentially operates on two tracks.24
At the broadest level, OFA does outreach and organizing to build social, diffused support for the administration’s priorities. Through local events, meetings and petition drives, for example, OFA can try to boost the awareness, support and enthusiasm for specific initiatives. On this indirect track, a resulting increase in support might be demonstrated through turnout at events; citizen voices in letters to the editor; local media coverage; people’s conversations with their neighbors; or even through national polling on support for Obama’s agenda.
This approach can be conceived as “mandate support.” It operates on the (generally accepted) political premise that Presidents enact more of their agenda when their public mandate is large – or perceived to be large. In this model, a President aims to maintain his base not only for reelection (a political goal), but also because maintaining base support helps enact the administration’s policies (a governing goal). Again, the traditional mechanism for such backing was through political, financial and media efforts, not sustained field organizing, but the strategic framework is quite similar.
The other track for OFA is directly lobbying Congress. Obama supporters are asked to engage their members of Congress regarding the administration’s agenda. This engagement is done through phone calls, office meetings and local events. OFA typically encourages supporters to use a positive tone to voice support for a general administration plan or set of principles, such as “health care reform,” without drawing more precise lines. The posture ranges from encouraging members of Congress to vote for the administration’s agenda, to thanking individual members for votes backing the administration, to pressing selected members who vote against key items on the agenda. Unlike many lobbying and advocacy groups, OFA’s direct lobbying track generally avoided more confrontational postures towards elected Democrats in 2009.
Proponents of such field policy efforts contend that governance organizing expands the civic and political opportunities for engagement, providing citizens with a tangible way to volunteer and advocate beyond the confines of an electoral campaign.25 By tapping the interest in a (popular) President, OFA can even recruit new governance activists who would not be as likely to engage the legislative process under the status quo, or through actions that focused on their individual member of Congress. (After all, most voters cannot even name their member of Congress.)26 And Obama’s political allies tend to view OFA as a basic opportunity for supporters to advance the agenda they backed in the election.
According to OFA, in 2009, the governance organizing program attracted new volunteers who were not active during the campaign. More broadly, grassroots governance organizing, by either political party, might mitigate some of the distorted influences in the current political market. If the media and financial machinery of the modern presidential policymaking already operate a permanent campaign, a program engaging more regular citizens – as supportive volunteers or persuadable decision-makers – could restore some balance to a process that often focuses on media and financial advocacy more than pressure from regular citizens.
Others caution that simply layering a field component over a permanent campaign model could actually heighten some problematic trends in civic life. The academic literature on permanent campaigns, and the increasing politicization of the entire federal government bureaucracy, raises this concern. “Campaigning is geared to one unambiguous, [competitive] decision point in time,” argues one such critique,27 contrasting that dynamic to a governing ideal that would proceed more cooperatively. This argument, also reflected in public opinion that dislikes “partisan bickering,” raises the prospect that constant campaigning fosters an adversarial, rather than collaborative, approach to governing.
A related concern focuses on the growth of the modern “plebiscitary presidency.” Scholars, commentators and members of Congress have raised concerns about how presidents increasingly make appeals directly to the public, rather than working directly with the representative branch of government. Fortifying that model with a powerful, national whip operation could further undermine Congress’ autonomy, in this narrative. Conservative critics of Obama have also argued that he would use his email lists to dominate Congress by conducting the presidency in “campaign mode.”28 This report probes opinion within the legislative branch on OFA's evolving role in the legislative process.
Finally, a more direct political question, at least among Obama allies and the progressive organizing community, is whether OFA’s first year provided an organizing program that is both effective and empowering for its members.29 Some former Obama campaign aides interviewed for this report, for example, are concerned about whether OFA is maintaining the meaningful, successful relationships developed among Obama supporters during the presidential campaign, both for their intrinsic valence and, of course, for the instrumental benefit to Obama’s next campaign.
This report explores all of these issues during the first year of OFA. If there is one certainty about OFA’s future, it is that the organization’s priorities will change in 2010. After a year devoted to health care reform, OFA must choose a new agenda to engage its members.
12 PatrickCaddell,“Initial Working Paper on Political Strategy," December 10,1976, quoted in “The permanent campaign and its future” 62, Norman J. Ornstein, Thomas E. Mann, eds, American Enterprise Institute (2000).
13 Sidney Blumenthal, “The Permanent Campaign,” Beacon Press (2000).
14 E.g. Corey Cook, “The Contemporary Presidency: The Permanence of the ‘Permanent Campaign’ George W. Bush's Public Presidency," Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. 32, 2002.
15 E.g. Brendan Doherty, “Elections: The Politics of the Permanent Campaign: Presidential Travel and the Electoral College,1977-2004,” Presentation at the Annual Meeting Of The Midwest Political Science Association, April 12-15, 2007 (studying presidential fundraising and travel and finding strategic targeting has increased over time, supporting the hypothesis that the “permanent campaign is on the rise”).
16 Former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe has noted that because there is no real precedent for OFA’s model, there is no way to know whether it will succeed. As the New York Times reported before Obama was sworn in: “Plouffe said the list could be used to invite grass-roots participation in government or to build support for the administration’s policies. ‘We’ll see whether it works or not,’ he said. ‘It’s never been tried before.’" “Between Obama and the Press,” Mark Leibovich, New York Times Magazine, December 21, 2008.
17 Under Chairman Howard Dean, the DNC described the 50 State Strategy’s field organizing success in electoral terms. See, eg, “A 50 State Strategy: Rebuild, Show Up, and Ask for People's Votes,” DNC memorandum, November 5, 2008, excerpted in “DNC Memo: This Is The 50-State Strategy Realized,” Sam Stein, Huffington Post, November 6, 2008. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2008/11/06/dnc-memo-we- deserve-some_n_141878.html
18 After President George W. Bush’s reelection, the RNC did announce to reporters that it would mobilize volunteers from the reelection campaign to pressure Congress to enact Bush’s legislative agenda. No coordinated field effort ensued, however, and the RNC’s emphasis was more on running a media-driven permanent campaign model than a field organizing program. The Washington Post reported on the effort: “[T]he RNC's incoming chairman said the campaign apparatus — from a national database of 7.5 million e-mail activists to tens of thousands of neighborhood precinct captains — will be used to build congressional support [for Social Security Reform]. ‘There are a lot of tools we used in the '04 campaign, from regional media to research to rapid response to having surrogates on television,’ he said.” “Bush faithful enlisted for Social Security fight,” Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei, Washington Post, January 14, 2005.
19 For a discussion of these earlier efforts, including the Eisenhower administration’s “Citizens for Eisenhower,” the Kennedy administration’s “Operation Support,” and the Carter administration’s “Carter Network,” see “The Party of Obama,” Charles Homans, Washington Monthly, January/February 2010. Also see, “Can Obama’s ‘Organizing for America’ Evolve into a Party-Building Entity?,” Daniel Galvin, Britannica.com, November 16th, 2009. http://www.britannica.com/blogs/2009/11/can-obamas-organizing-for-america-evolve/
20 “[T]he DNC has built a staff of about 380 employees across the country – a hiring pace that puts it on track to far surpass the staffs assembled by  predecessors. The lion’s share of the hiring is to support a new organizing project called Organizing for America ... Dean’s DNC had only 217 staffers at a comparable point in his tenure as chairman.” “In his own image: Barack Obama's DNC,” Kenneth Vogel, Politico, October 24, 2009. http://www.politico.com/news/stories/1009/28674.html
21 See, e.g. “Presidential Party Building: Dwight D. Eisenhower to George W. Bush,” Daniel Galvin, Princeton University Press (2009).
22 “Can Obama’s ‘Organizing for America’ Evolve into a Party-Building Entity?,” Daniel Galvin, Britannica.com, November 16th, 2009. http://www.britannica.com/blogs/2009/11/can-obamas-organizing-for-america-evolve
24 Even before Obama won the election, some Democratic analysts concluded that his team was unusually assertive in its efforts to “consolidate” the party around Obama. “[I]t's time to get ready for a party that is being taken apart and rebuilt as the Obama movement,” wrote Democratic activist and blogger Matt Stoller in May, before the nomination was settled, pointing to Obama’s focus on shaping the message, field, finance and registration of the national Democratic Party. “Obama's Consolidation of the Party,” Matt Stoller, OpenLeft, May 7, 2008. http://www.openleft.com/showDiary.do?diaryId=5637 Another Democratic activist and commentator, David Dayen, contended during the 2008 campaign that Obama’s field operation was simultaneously recruiting new supporters and “building a new Democratic infrastructure, regimenting it under his brand, and enlisting new technologies and more sophisticated voter contacting techniques to turn it from a normal GOTV effort into a lasting movement. The short-term goal is to increase voter turnout by such a degree that Republicans will wither in November, not just from a swamp of cash but a flood of numbers. The long-term goal is to subvert the traditional structures of the Democratic Party since the early 1990s, subvert the nascent structures that the progressive movement has been building since the late 1990s, and build a parallel structure, under his brand, that will become the new power center in American politics. This is tremendous news. However, despite his calls that change always occurs from the bottom up, these structures are very much being created and controlled from the top down.” “The Obama Party,” David Dayen, Hullabaloo, May 8, 2008. http://digbysblog.blogspot.com/2008/05/obama-party-by-dday-on-saturday-in-over.html Also see, “Notes on The Obama Disconnect,” David Dayen, FireDogLake, January 3, 2010. http://news.firedoglake.com/2010/01/03/notes-on-the-obama-disconnect/
25 See, e.g. “Organizing for America: Looking Back, Marching Ahead, Jeremy Bird, Huffington Post, January 6, 2010.
26 “... 70 percent [of Americans] can't name either of their state's senators and, even at the height of a campaign, a large majority can't name any candidate running in their congressional districts.” “American voters' knowledge of current affairs,” Kate O'Beirne, National Review, November 8, 2004 (citing National Election Surveys). For more longitudinal data on public ignorance and disconnection from members of Congress, see “The Paradox of Mass Politics: Knowledge and Opinion in The American Electorate,” W. Russell Neuman, Harvard University Press (1986).
27“The contemporary presidency: The permanence of the ‘permanent campaign’: George W. Bush's public presidency,” Corey Cook, Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. 32, Issue 4, December 1, 2002.
28 See, e.g. Transcript, The Rush Limbaugh Show, November 6, 2008, http://www.rushlimbaugh.com/home/daily/site_110608/content/01125104.guest.html. Also see, “Obama White House to Marshall Online Army,” Rick Klein, ABCNews.com, November 11, 2008. http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/President44/Story?id=6223143&page=1
29 For example, some former Obama campaign advisers have questioned whether OFA has prioritized a bottom-up, movement-building ethic in its first year. See, e.g. “We Have Hope, Now Where’s The Audacity,” Marshall Ganz and Peter Dreier, Washington Post, August 30, 2009. Other Obama supporters have countered that OFA has empowered its members and was crucial to advancing health care reform in Congress. See, e.g. “OFA: Obama’s Secret Weapon,” Robert Creamer, Huffington Post, January 5, 2010.