Leaking political capital amid continued dysfunction in Washington, President Obama delivered a pep talk Wednesday to supporters of his new advocacy group trying to lift a gridlock-defying agenda of immigration reform, gun control, and climate change.
In a speech to the recently launched Organizing for Action, Obama acknowledged some “suspicion" over the nonprofit group that’s replaced his campaign to further his policy goals.
"Because the usual idea is, well, this must just be a mechanism to try to win the next election in 2014," he told an audience of about 75 donors, former campaign staffers, and volunteers gathered at the St. Regis Hotel in Washington for a two-day conference. “And what we've tried to explain to people is, is that, no, I actually just want to govern—at least for a couple of years—but I also want to make sure that the voices of ordinary people are heard in the debates that are going to be taking place."
Yet tacitly acknowledging the intersection of policy and politics, Obama suggested the group could provide cover to vulnerable members of Congress. "If you have a senator or a congressman in a swing district who is prepared to take a tough vote—or what they consider to be a tough vote—on immigration reform, or legislation around background checks for guns, I want to make sure that they feel supported," he said.
Earlier Wednesday, OFA leaders insisted the group is focused on passing legislation, not winning elections. "We are not a partisan organization,” OFA Executive Director Jon Carson said. “We are here to move this shared progressive agenda forward.”
The kickoff coincided with two new polls suggesting Obama’s second honeymoon is waning, which could force him to scale back his ambitions. A new Washington Post-ABC News poll shows the president's approval has dropped to 50 percent, down 5 points from his inauguration two weeks ago. His ratings were upside-down in a new McClatchy-Marist poll, which found 45 of voters approving of his job performance and 48 percent disapproving.
Obama’s drop in the polls is not surprising, considering how the glow of his second inauguration gave way to the partisan bickering that forced $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts known as the sequester. OFA Chairman Jim Messina said OFA hosted 1,200 parties around the State of the Union speech and has organized 100 gun-control rallies so far.
“That’s the power of the grassroots and that’s what’s going to pass this president’s legislative agenda,” Messina said. “For every dollar a lobbyist puts on the air tearing down the president’s agenda, an OFA volunteer will mobilize across the country to counter that.”
Obama’s ratings are lower than most other recent presidents at this point in their second terms, according to The Washington Post. Of the seven second-term presidents who have served since Harry S Truman, only George W. Bush’s rating was as low as 50 percent at this point.
“I think the window of any second term-president is 18 months, max,” said John Morgan, a leading Obama donor from Florida. “He might not get gun-control legislation, but he might get background checks. I think he’ll get immigration reform because Republicans understand that they can’t be the party that opposes that again.”
Morgan, like other donors, gave $50,000 to attend the conference, sparking criticism from Republicans and campaign finance watchdogs that OFA was selling access to the president. "President Obama promised to change Washington, but these actions just perpetuate the pay-to-play politics he has repeatedly deplored," Common Cause President Bob Edgar said in a statement.
Besides preserving Obama's image, perhaps the biggest challenge facing OFA will be transitioning its volunteers from a fast-paced campaign to the legislative slog of an advocacy group. “The excitement should be the same, but the politics complicate things and that weighs on you,” said Marc Casillas, a 19-year-old student at the University of Arizona attending the conference. Asked about Obama’s dwindling popularity, he blamed the standoff on Capitol Hill over taxes and spending. “When there’s partisan gridlock, people start to hate both sides,” he said.
The good news for Obama, so far, is that voters vastly prefer him to Congress, which received only 16 percent approval in the Washington Post poll.