As President Obama prepares to address a “founders' summit” of Organizing for Action on Wednesday, the challenges facing the nonprofit lobbying group that has replaced his campaign are becoming clearer.
How can OFA help the president accomplish an ambitious, liberal agenda that includes immigration reform, gun control, and climate change during an election cycle in which Democrats will mostly be playing defense? Winning back a House with such few vulnerable Republicans looks like a long shot, while the most competitive Senate races feature red-state Democrats who need to prove their independence. The states hosting the swing votes on the big issues before Congress don’t necessarily line up with the battleground states where Obama’s campaign was focused in 2008 and 2012.
For all of these reasons, a tough mid-term election could be an awkward time to test-drive an outside advocacy group closely linked to the president.
"Organizing around an election is much different than organizing around a legislative vote,” said Democratic consultant Phil Singer, who worked for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee when his party took back the chamber in 2006. “If you’re going to get anything done on guns, for example, you’re going to need those red House districts."
Less than two months after Organizing for Action launched during an inauguration in which Obama delivered a fiery speech about his second-term priorities, his failure to reach a budget deal with Congress to avoid so-called sequester spending cuts is showing limits of his power and forcing him to take a more conciliatory approach to the opposition party.
Where OFA may have the most success: burnishing the president’s image so that he can use his popularity to push his agenda, and tapping its vast voter database to identify supporters who will lobby members of Congress. For example, OFA’s detailed catalogue of information could allow it to send carefully crafted messages to gun-control supporters in Republican-leaning states with gun-friendly elected officials.
"If you engage those people, that’s going to send a message to office holders who might start to realize their state is not scarlet red and more purple than they thought,” Singer said. “For all the new technology, members of Congress are remarkably sensitive to the calls that come over the phone."
Democratic consultant J.B. Poersch, who served as executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee from 2005 to 2010, acknowledged that the campaign map for 2014 is “difficult” and much different than the game plan for 2012. Working in favor of the president's agenda, he said, are the polls that show voters with a dim view of the Republican Party as out of touch and too extreme.
“People are more likely to see Republicans as part of the problem,” he said. “In 2012 they were at a deficit in terms of the enthusiasm gap, and it still exists for them right now.”
OFA spokeswoman Katie Hogan dismissed the idea that the organization would be at a disadvantage in states that were not hanging in the balance in presidential election years.
“OFA has supporters and volunteers from every corner of the country, in all 50 states, coming together to support important issues like curbing gun violence, immigration reform, and ensuring a stronger middle class,” she said in an e-mail. “We will be discussing the differences in organizing around issue advocacy at our founders' summit as many of our organizers are more familiar with organizing around an election day.”
About 100 donors, supporters, and grassroots volunteers are expected to attend the conference Wednesday and Thursday at the St. Regis Hotel in Washington. At the same time, OFA members are planning local gatherings across the country “to decide how we can be the grassroots foundation of the movement to get progressive legislation through a recalcitrant Congress,” said an OFA e-mail touting a meeting in northern Virginia.
Speakers will include David Plouffe, former White House senior adviser and Obama's campaign manager in 2008; Jim Messina, OFA national chairman and Obama's campaign manager in 2012; Jon Carson, OFA’s executive director; and Lisa Jackson, the former EPA administrator. Some parts of the conference will be open to the media, while other sessions will be behind closed doors.