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Obama supporters maintain ‘permanent campaign’

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Instead of putting his massive campaign coalition of supporters from 2008 into a forced hibernation until 2012, President Obama has attempted to keep the group whole and target its efforts with a permanent campaign to pressure Congress to pass his agenda.

Organizing for America is more than a spinoff of Mr. Obama's presidential campaign — it's housed at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) but is free to let the party do the political dirty work, and it keeps his enthusiastic supporters engaged, active and primed for his re-election bid.

Howard Dean, DNC chairman from 2005 until this winter, told The Washington Times he had long advocated that the party adopt the idea of a "permanent campaign."

"We now have one, and you have to have that in order to win. The Republicans did it for 15 years," Mr. Dean said.

Mr. Dean said he's a "big fan" of Organizing for America. "Most presidents come in and take over the DNC," he said, but Mr. Obama brokered a successful merger that allows the party to maintain its infrastructure.

The compromise wasn't easy — longtime party activists and Obama loyalists who worked out of Chicago during the campaign agreed the 13-million-strong e-mail list couldn't go dormant for four years, but Mr. Obama's coalition was not formed from the traditional Democratic mold.

Democratic operatives could not see the winning Obama coalition, which included Republicans, college students, Southern Blue Dogs and more black voters than had ever participated before, fitting neatly into the DNC. And, working for a candidate who portrayed himself as post-partisan and focused on issues instead of politics, they figured the DNC would not exactly match the image they wanted to project.

"These aren't die-hard Democratic voters," said a former DNC staffer, speaking under condition of anonymity to talk freely about the process.

The staffer said the questions raised produced lengthy discussions that led to more questions about the future of Mr. Dean's "50-state strategy" of competing across the country instead of just focusing on traditional Democratic and swing states.

The answer was something that hadn't been done before: the retention of a grass-roots group focused on policy. It kept the same OFA initials used for the campaign's "Obama for America" and used BarackObama.com for its Web address.

Housed at the DNC but not limited to fundraising or advocating for a candidate, the e-mail list is used to lobby nationally for the presidential agenda.

"The advantage of Organizing for America is that it can be devoted exclusively to a particular issue, 100 million percent," said Brad Woodhouse, DNC communications director.

Mr. Woodhouse said OFA is a "large, permanent enterprise that keeps the volunteers that were part of the campaign active and engaged."

Another Democratic source said the post-election deliberations made some uncomfortable at party headquarters, as they feared more conservative members would be targeted by the new OFA group.

The fears weren't entirely unjustified. OFA this summer ran health care ads in eight red or battleground states aimed at pressuring moderate Democrats — many facing difficult re-election campaigns next year — to back the president's agenda.

The source complained that those members are under intense pressure, and the DNC worked hard to send them to office just a few years ago. OFA critics also were unhappy that party donations would be used to target conservative Democratic senators such as Ben Nelson in Nebraska instead of to defeat Republicans.

After he won the 1992 presidential election, Bill Clinton's campaign effectively became the DNC, and the campaign list was on loan to the party. The same was true for President George W. Bush and the Republican Party in 2000.

The structure allows Mr. Obama and his advisers to retain more control over the list of core supporters and easily activate his political machine ahead of the 2012 re-election campaign. Both Mr. Clinton and Mr. Bush started their re-election bids during their third year in office.

Pete Seat, who worked in the Bush White House press shop, complimented the Obama campaign but said the innovative political machinery hasn't translated well to governing.

"They still think this is a campaign, and it's not," he said. "Knocking on doors only helps so much."

Mr. Seat noted that Mr. Bush made a similar mistake during his 2005 Social Security push, holding dozens of town halls on the issue when voters were weary from the campaign the year before.

Democrats view the OFA-DNC dichotomy as the Obama loyalists "doing their own thing," and in most cases, state Democrats don't seem to mind because the campaign had such success last year.

After a steady hiring push, OFA has paid staffers in 45 states and will be in all 50 states within weeks, Democrats said.

"We've made unprecedented investments in both political infrastructure, field and issue advocacy in support of the president's agenda," Mr. Woodhouse said.

OFA volunteers hosted more than 12,000 events this summer related to the health care battle, but some activists question the effectiveness of OFA over the long term, especially because polls about health care show public support is declining despite the lobbying efforts.

"Campaign work is easy to mobilize, but it's hard to build a grass-roots movement around principles and not a specific candidate or proposal," said Simon Rosenberg, who leads the New Democratic Network in Washington. "It has to be more tangible, and there isn't an 'Obama health care plan.'"

Instead, there are multiple congressional plans, each with different elements that are vulnerable to Republican attacks. The president has endorsed general principles for the reform bill but has left much of the drafting to Democrats on Capitol Hill.

Yet some Obama loyalists see it as their duty to fight for his health care principles.

Ohio Democrat Marie Engles said OFA e-mails have pushed her to remain involved long after volunteering for the Obama campaign. She writes elected officials and attends meetings, but more valuable to OFA, she uses her own network to send petitions and updates on policy details.

OFA's "Let's Get It Done" bus tour for health care reform will make more than a dozen stops through battleground states as it crosses the country before Congress returns from its summer recess next week.

In Phoenix, volunteers were asked to "be part of history," a common phrase held over from the Obama campaign.

"We want our members of Congress to head back to Washington with calls for reform still ringing in their ears — and knowing that those who are working hard for reform have our thanks. But we can't do it without a massive show of support from the voters who know what's at stake," the Arizona OFA field director wrote.

The OFA structure also allows the DNC to file one big campaign finance report for all its projects, so Republicans won't be able to tell for sure how many people are in which states and where the party and the president are targeting their resources on the ground.

Things are kept separately in both location and mentality with conversational OFA e-mails coming from Mitch Stewart, Jeremy Bird or David Plouffe, all Obama campaign aides whom supporters from the campaign got to know.

The DNC structure, and more traditional fundraising mechanism, is more formal, with messages coming from Chairman Tim Kaine, the governor of Virginia, and Jen O'Malley Dillon, the party's executive director.

The new structure puts far more people in place to handle each region where OFA staffers are deployed across the country, allowing for better state coordination.

State party officials interviewed for this story gave Organizing for America high marks, but several sources said there have been a few public rumblings about OFA seeming like a two-class system and leaving the state parties with less support than they had before.

That's not the case in Ohio, where the state party coordinated with OFA to host seven joint voter canvasses on the issue of health care in the same districts where conservatives had held "tea party" protests. An Ohio Democratic staffer called it a "true partnership," and noted OFA rents office space in the building.

Mr. Dean brushed aside the complaints from some state parties that they have been overlooked.

Yes, they have fewer Democratic staffers now in Vermont and Maine than they supplied during his tenure, but there are far more people on the ground in Texas and Georgia.

"That's a huge improvement," he said. "I've always believed that we can win Texas in 2012."

Top OFA staffers recently spoke at a grass-roots training session held by the California Democratic Party.

"Organizing for America gives our members options to work on the president's agenda. I see it as adding value to what we do," said party spokeswoman Kate Folmar.

About the Author

Christina Bellantoni

Christina Bellantoni is a White House correspondent for The Washington Times in Washington, D.C., a post she took after covering the 2008 Democratic presidential campaigns. She has been with The Times since 2003, covering state and Congressional politics before moving to national political beat for the 2008 campaign. Bellantoni, a San Jose native, graduated from UC Berkeley with ...

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