by Peter Overby
Just as no other presidential candidate ever had so many volunteers and so much money from so many donors, now Barack Obama will have a grassroots network of unprecedented size and enthusiasm backing him up as president.
The Obama presidential campaign's list of supporters and donors — some 13 million e-mail addresses — is being transformed into a permanent grassroots organization, tied to the Democratic National Committee. It could give the president a powerful tool for dealing with Congress.
The group will be called Organizing for America, just a few letters' change from the campaign committee, Obama for America — which made the announcement last weekend. As usual, it came in an e-mail, with a short video of Obama.
"You built the largest grassroots movement in history and shaped the future of this country. And the movement that you built is too important to stop growing now," Obama says in the video.
In a second video distributed on Friday, former campaign manager David Plouffe said members of the new organization will work on such issues as the economy, energy and health care.
He said this new movement will be different from a political campaign because the president wants "to connect Americans to the debate here in Washington. And I think that's not only good for our democracy and our country, but will also help President Obama succeed in bringing about the change we all fought for in the campaign."
Tom Matzzie, a consultant and former Washington director of the liberal online group MoveOn.org, says, "We've never had a political leader who has continued their organizing while in office like this, at this scale. This will be a lot larger than anything that's been done before."
Potential To Backfire
Matzzie sees great things ahead for Organizing for America — and not just as a lobbying machine.
"For the next 40 years, those people will be involved in their communities in a way that was inspired out of the Obama campaign, and they will go on to run for school boards and city council and maybe president some day," Matzzie says.
But there are potential problems.
"This can backfire fairly easily," says James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington, D.C.
He says members of Congress might not want to hear from the president's support base.
"If they overuse the list, if they flood the Hill with huge mobilization campaigns and it irritates people. … They have to be very careful the way they use this resource," Thurber says.
He also points out that the people who signed up for Obama's campaign might not all feel the same way about specific pieces of legislation.
And what's more, the new caretaker of the list, the Democratic National Committee, is as partisan as you can get.
"Many of these people in this 13 million list may not be that partisan. They liked his theme of bipartisanship," Thurber says.
A DNC spokeswoman said the arrangement is just starting to get worked out.
'A Multiplier Effect'
A private-sector counterpart to Organizing for America might be AARP, the organization for Americans older than 50. It claims 40 million members overall. About 10 percent of them get involved in express advocacy, according to AARP's Jim Dau.
He says people choose to get on the e-mail list, just like the Obama campaign, and those names are golden to the organization.
"There's a multiplier effect because you're not just talking to, you know, me sitting at home. You're talking to someone ... who has demonstrated their ability to talk to their neighbors, their friends, their family and enroll them in the task at hand," Dau says.
But he says activists like these need more than constant calls to action. The organization has to engage them in other ways, too — encouraging get-togethers, asking for opinions, making them feel like part of something bigger.
"When you're asking for feedback, people are going to know that you're listening. Otherwise, you're going to be relegated to either the spam filter or just, you know, mass deletions," Dau says.
That's a lesson that the Obama campaign took to heart. What remains to be seen is whether the wisdom transfers with the list.