The Party of Obama

What are the president’s
grass roots good for?

By Charles Homans

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n David Plouffe’s campaign memoir, The Audacity to Win, Barack Obama’s victory happens the way explosions happen in the more lyrical action movies: there is a moment of silent suspended animation, and then the roar. Plouffe, Obama’s campaign manager, meets the new president in his suite at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Chicago, just as Obama gets off the phone with President Bush, who has called to congratulate him. “I suddenly noticed how quiet the room seemed,” Plouffe writes. “An outside observer might not have immediately known if we had won or lost the election.” As Obama and his entourage pile into the motorcade to greet the crowds in Grant Park, Plouffe is still checking the western states’ returns on his BlackBerry. It doesn’t quite seem to have happened.

The principal architects of Obama’s win were Plouffe and campaign adviser David Axelrod, and if Axelrod’s handiwork—the shaping of the candidate and his message—was visible at the time, it took somewhat longer for outsiders to grasp the full scope of Plouffe’s accomplishment, the technical workings of the campaign itself. Plouffe was press shy throughout the campaign, and came across in the few interviews he did give as almost studiously bland, like a particularly talented manager of a suburban Best Buy franchise. (He’s even from Delaware.) But Plouffe’s low-key act wasn’t entirely incidental; the structure he built benefited from appearing not to have an architect.

The Obama campaign, Plouffe insists in nearly every chapter of his book, was built by, and for, the people. And to a real degree, it was. By November 4, Obama for America had 2 million active volunteers and nearly 4 million small donors, more than any previous Democratic campaign. With my.barackobama.com, the campaign’s online hub, organizers could make more effective use of its grass roots than any candidate ever had. Local volunteers could organize and plan events without anyone in Chicago lifting a finger. By Election Day, the campaign’s e-mail list of self-selected Obama supporters numbered 13 million addresses. With the click of a mouse, Plouffe could reach a group of true believers the size of the population of Illinois.

That list—by the time Obama took office in January, what was going to happen to it was the million-dollar question. It was a tool that no previous president had had—except that, legally, the White House couldn’t have it. So after some deliberation, Obama and his organizers decided to move the whole shop into the Democratic National Committee, renaming it Organizing for America and tweaking its mission: the organization that helped Obama win as a candidate would now be tasked with helping him succeed as a president. The speculation commenced immediately. In a profile of Plouffe—the man who “Changed Politics Forever”—in Esquire, Lisa Taddeo wrote, “If Obama has a policy initiative he wants to push, or a message he needs to disseminate, or a gaffe he wants to bat down, he will call David Plouffe and Plouffe will unleash the many-million-mouthed dog, just as he did all across America for these past two years.”

That was the idea, anyway. But then Plouffe, whose daughter was born two days after the election, went into private consulting. The rest of the campaign’s inner circle mostly moved into administration jobs, leaving OFA in the hands of their thirtysomething protégés. And the organization that was supposed to change everything has—well, not changed much at all.

It isn’t that OFA hasn’t done anything—it’s that it’s hard to say whether what it’s done has actually mattered. When Congress debated the stimulus package, OFA asked its members to host house parties and collect stories—ultimately some 31,000 of them—about how the economic crisis was affecting them. The bill passed, but you would’ve had to squint awfully hard to see OFA’s fingerprints on the final product. As the climate and health care bills advanced through the House, OFA sent out informational e-mails to its members and ran a television commercial urging viewers to call their congressmen and ask them to support health care reform—until the congressmen (who weren’t named in the ads) complained to the White House. OFA obliged, and the next round of ads praised lawmakers who were doing the right thing; “Even if they aren’t 100 percent on board, we’re asking our folks to thank our members,” OFA Executive Director Mitch Stewart told the New York Times. In August, as conservative tea partiers descended on lawmakers’ town halls, OFA belatedly mobilized members to provide moral support at Democrats’ events, but shied away from Republicans’.

As summer faded into fall, OFA began to receive harsh reviews from progressives, who argued that an organization that could have redefined liberal activism for a new generation had instead been squandered on what was essentially a prolonged PR mission. In an August 30 Washington Post op-ed titled “We Have the Hope. Now Where’s the Audacity?” veteran organizers Peter Dreier and Marshall Ganz contended that OFA had “failed to keep up” with Obama’s legislative agenda, and chastised the group for spending time on community service projects rather than bare-knuckle pursuit of policy victories. That criticism, in particular, must have stung; Ganz, a onetime acolyte of César Chávez and a legendary theorist of community organizing, had mentored members of OFA’s brain trust, and conducted training workshops for Obama’s volunteers during the campaign.

Finally, on October 20, OFA made its first big move: a national “day of action” on health care reform, on which the organization’s members made—or pledged to make; the numbers OFA has released don’t distinguish—more than 315,000 calls to members of Congress, asking lawmakers to pass Obama’s health care plan. But once again, the callers’ pitch was short on specifics—you had to dig deep on OFA’s Web site to find any mention of the public health insurance option that liberals (and, according to CBS News polling, most Americans) wanted to see included in the bill. And the volume of calls, while impressive, fell short of overwhelming; with less than 3 million members, MoveOn was able to make that many calls to voters on a single afternoon in early 2004.

As the health care debate continued through November, MoveOn ran hard-hitting ad campaigns for the public option in Arkansas and Maine, the homes, respectively, of Blue Dog Democratic and moderate Republican lawmakers who would determine the fate of the bill in the Senate. OFA, meanwhile, sent out an e-mail plea to its members asking them for help raising $500,000 to counteract the “misinformation” Sarah Palin was spreading about Obama’s health care plan on her book tour. Whatever OFA did with such donations, it had no noticeable impact on public perception of the president’s handling of health care, which barely budged (downward) in the polls in the weeks after OFA kicked into high gear.

Could OFA have done a better job of helping pass these bills? Maybe, but it’s hard to see how. On health care, for instance, the thing that OFA could theoretically do—drum up public support for the general idea of health care reform—didn’t really need doing; reform of one sort or another remained consistently popular throughout last year’s debate. What mattered was which bill—there were five of them up for debate in the Senate—and the White House, whose agenda rests almost entirely in the hands of a few moderate Senate Democrats, was naturally not interested in riling any of the authors. Rather than enlisting OFA to push for a specific piece of legislation, Obama used his speech to the organization’s volunteers on October 20 to try to convince them that any of the bills would constitute a victory.

In short, the problem isn’t that OFA is screwing up—it’s that the Obama White House has been using Plouffe’s invention for the wrong task. An organization of this nature is a marginal-at-best tool for advancing specific legislation. But with the right cues from its patron in the White House, OFA could be a powerful tool for expanding and remaking the Democratic Party—a mission that would, in the end, do far more to further Obama’s agenda than a few hundred thousand phone calls.


In the days after the election, Obama’s campaign operatives met in Chicago to mull the question of what to do with the machine they had spent the last two years assembling. There were essentially two options. One, espoused by Steve Hildebrand, Plouffe’s deputy, was to turn it into a stand-alone liberal pressure group: an organization that would, like a supercharged MoveOn, take the raucous activist spirit that had animated the field troops of the Obama campaign and funnel it into a powerful policy movement. “I thought it would be important to really explore the idea,” Marshall Ganz, who wasn’t involved in the discussions but had stayed close with some of Obama’s organizers, told me recently. “There was an opportunity to make something that would transcend all the issue groups and be an advocacy organization for a more progressive agenda.” The most sweeping changes in the domestic policy landscape, he pointed out, had all resulted from the combined efforts of powerful outside pressure groups and sympathetic leaders on the inside. FDR had had the populist armies of Huey P. Long, Lyndon Johnson had the civil rights movement, even the Republican revolution had Grover Norquist and Jerry Falwell.

The problem with this idea was that Obama’s supporters, whatever their ideological affinities, were mostly united by their affection for the president and their desire to win a pivotal election. As a candidate, Obama was hardly a liberal firebrand—his vision of government had been moderately left of center and mildly technocratic, more JFK than FDR. And in any case, transplanting the heart of a movement is a tricky thing—the civil rights movement didn’t evolve out of Johnson-Humphrey ’64, after all, and even Martin Luther King Jr. stumbled when he tried to extend his activist franchise to include poverty and housing rights.

David Plouffe had something else in mind: integrating OFA into the Democratic National Committee. This idea had its own outside champion in Howard Dean, who weighed in during the proceedings. As chairman of the DNC, Dean had pursued a “fifty-state strategy”: eschewing the traditional Democratic practice of pouring money and people into competitive states and ignoring everyone else, Dean allocated a smattering of resources to parties in every single state, even deeply red ones where Democrats were about as popular as the Inner Mongolian People’s Party. It was controversial among Democrats—Dean and Rahm Emanuel had once nearly come to blows over it—but the Obama campaign’s similar approach in 2008 had vindicated Dean’s vision. Now Dean saw the opportunity to use OFA to double down on the bet he had made, beefing up state Democratic outposts with Obama’s grassroots supporters. “This is kind of a fusion of the old way of doing things, which is the president putting his stamp on the party,” Dean told me, “and the fifty-state strategy, which is the new way of doing things.”

But there was a problem with that, too: a lot of OFA’s members didn’t necessarily think of themselves as Democrats. This had been an issue during the campaign, when Obama’s advisers were weighing the pros and cons of taking public financing during the general election. For legal reasons, Plouffe realized, such a move would mean asking Obama’s army of volunteers and small donors, many of them independents and some Republicans, to work for and contribute to the DNC—something he wasn’t sure they would do. “If these people were forced to volunteer through the Democratic Party, no matter how clearly the mission was stated, we feared we could lose up to 20 percent of our volunteers,” Plouffe writes in The Audacity to Win.

In the end, Obama and OFA’s organizers split the difference. They took Dean’s advice, rebranding OFA as a “project of the DNC.” But, wary of spooking Obama’s non-Democratic voters, OFA has since self-consciously maintained the rhetoric of an independent grassroots organization. Unable to embrace either specific policy goals, the way an independent organization like MoveOn can, or overt party-building objectives, OFA instead sticks with ferocious consistency to a succinct and basically meaningless mission: “to support the president’s agenda.” This charter gives OFA a set of endlessly moveable goalposts, and lends an odd meta quality to the group’s activism: it measures success less in actual legislative accomplishments than in the simple fact of its continued existence.

But this vagueness has an end date: this year’s congressional elections, when Democrats, facing reelection battles in what will inevitably be a tough race for the party, will ask the most promising electoral operation in the Democratic orbit for help. When I called an in-state staffer for a Democratic congressman facing reelection in a conservative district this year, he spoke—on the condition of anonymity—with a wary respect for OFA’s work so far. But, he told me, “when I ask their state director what they’re doing, he says they’re ‘supporting the president’s agenda.’ I ask what the hell that actually means, and he can’t tell me. I asked how they were going to play in 2010, and he had no response. And that has me worried, because you have these activists—we need their help. We need them to make phone calls for us.”


He had good reason to be nervous: while the size of the grassroots operation that propelled Obama into office in 2008 was unprecedented, its in-it-but-not-of-it relationship with the Democratic Party wasn’t. As Northwestern University political scientist Daniel J. Galvin argues in his fine new book Presidential Party Building: Dwight D. Eisenhower to George W. Bush, for the past half century Democratic presidents have taken a similar attitude toward the DNC, using it to advance their presidential agenda rather than building for the future. This was partly because for years, the future looked to be shaping up okay without their help. Since FDR, Democrats and Republicans alike had assumed that Democratic hegemony was the natural state of affairs in American politics—which, for a time, was true. When elections rolled around, Democratic presidential candidates could outsource the nuts and bolts of grassroots campaigning to urban political machines, labor unions, and civic associations; campaign structures like the DNC were mostly a technical necessity. Democrats had also inherited the early-twentieth-century Progressive movement’s squeamishness about political parties, which the Progressives had viewed as inherently corrupt and inferior to the strong leadership of a president.

As a result, Galvin writes, Democratic presidents tended to hoard the resources and popular support they received during their campaigns, sequestering what grass roots they had in quasi-independent organizations while using the party’s own war chest and staff to push their agendas. John F. Kennedy had his own “project” at the DNC, called Operation Support, with the OFA-like aim of using the president’s celebrity appeal to prod along his legislative priorities, enlisting volunteers to write letters to the editor of their local newspapers, talk to their neighbors about Kennedy’s policies, and browbeat recalcitrant members of what was at the time a still-heterodox Democratic coalition in Congress. Jimmy Carter maintained the Carter Network, an independent organization fueled by the zeal of 150,000 of his grassroots supporters. In 1993, Bill Clinton used the DNC as a staging ground for his National Health Care Campaign, which tasked veterans of his 1992 presidential campaign with using the DNC’s human and infrastructural resources—along with $3 million of the organization’s money—to build grassroots support for health care reform.

As far as agenda advancement went, these efforts ranged from benign to worthless. Worse, they sucked resources and attention away from what the Democratic campaign committees should have been doing: planning for the next election. (Both Carter’s and Clinton’s first DNC chairs saw this, and quit in frustration early in their respective tenures.) The deficit first became apparent in 1980, when the increasingly venal and discredited Democratic caucus’s hold on Congress began to loosen and Democrats found that the institutions the party had counted on for electoral support, the unions and urban political machines, had mostly withered away. After pillaging the party in his first term and suffering the consequences in the 1994 midterms, Clinton tried to rebuild it in his second. But a few years of feverish fund-raising were hardly enough to reverse decades of decline, and both Al Gore and John Kerry went into their respective elections outmatched by the well-oiled Republican campaign machine.


By then, the Republicans had spent half a century pursuing a wholly opposite strategy, with much better results. Like the Democrats, they had long presumed the GOP to be the minority party—and they hoped to change that. To that end, they had consistently reinvested the momentum of their campaigns into the Republican Party itself.

The process began with Dwight D. Eisenhower, who took office in 1953 under what were, in many ways, Obama-like circumstances. Harry Truman was shuffling out of office in a funk of unpopularity. Ike had beaten Adlai Stevenson decisively the previous November, with 83 percent of the electoral vote and the strongest Republican showing in the South in years. His party controlled both the House and the Senate. These were wafer-thin majorities, however, and there was little reason to believe they would last. The GOP itself was near broke and balkanized, with liberals and moderates fending off a burgeoning conservative insurgency energized by Joe McCarthy’s anti-Communist crusade, then in its third year.

Eisenhower, who counted himself among the moderates, was not a particularly Republican Republican. His campaign had been viewed as a largely nonpartisan one; he was a general and a national hero, a man who Walter Lippmann, writing in the Washington Post, believed “in the style of George Washington was above party and above faction.” His youthful supporters had organized for him largely through Citizens for Eisenhower, his own grassroots organization that stood outside the GOP. In his first year he often fought congressional Republicans over legislation, and appealed to their Democratic rivals for the stray votes he needed.

But Eisenhower had few illusions about the limits of this nonpartisanship. At the end of the day, he knew, American government was a two-party system, and he was in one of them. If he poured his own star power and resources into rebuilding the GOP, Eisenhower reasoned, he could remake it as an extension of himself, and one that could continue promoting his legislative aims beyond the end of his own presidency. He urged his grassroots supporters—the Citizens for Eisenhower groups that had powered his ’52 campaign—to become card-carrying Republicans. “I pointed out that if we focused the whole effort on me as an individual then it would follow that in the event of my disability or death, the whole effort would collapse,” he wrote in his diary after one conversation with a Citizens leader. “This, I pointed out, was absurd. The idea is far bigger than any one individual.”

Eisenhower wasn’t able to keep the Republican Party moderate, but he did lay the foundation for its eventual dominance. His successors continued his work. Nixon, while not exactly the greatest poster boy for the Republican brand by the end of his presidency, directed efforts to strengthen local parties and build on regional victories. Gerald Ford, acutely aware of the GOP’s post-Nixon vulnerability, fund-raised obsessively for the party, but as an appointed president he had no base of campaign supporters to rally to the cause. He succeeded, however, in building a powerful operation to bequeath to a president who did: Ronald Reagan.

Reagan ran the most grassroots-driven Republican campaign since Eisenhower’s, and once in office he set about using it to expand the party’s infrastructure. He filled the RNC’s finance chair with Richard DeVos, the billionaire cofounder of the Amway Corporation, who brought with him the business model that had made his fortune, and worked to convert the party faithful’s social networks into fund-raising tools for the GOP. Republicans were now urged to bring their friends and family into the party ranks.

Reagan’s 1984 reelection marked the greatest expansion in the Republican electorate to date, snagging 64 percent of young and first-time voters. But there was one problem: like the voters who would elect Barack Obama twenty-four years later, Reagan’s constituency contained many voters who weren’t yet members of his party. There were unaffiliated young people, independents, evangelicals who had been skittish about electoral politics, and conservative Democrats who saw the mainstream of their party shifting away from them.

In Reagan’s view, this was the mother of all opportunities. If he could bring supporters into the Republican fold, he realized, he could do what Eisenhower had aspired to do: rebrand the Republican Party as a vehicle for his own ideology for a generation to come. Reagan threw himself into the project in his second term, urging his unaffiliated voters to think of the Republican Party as their party, and to participate in the electoral process at every level as Republicans. At a 1985 White House reception for ex-Democratic politicians who had switched parties, he spoke of his own 1961 party conversion, and commended his guests for undertaking “an act of courage and an act of conscience … You’re not isolated cases,” he told them. “You’re part of a great national change, a national movement that is sweeping the electorate.”

Reagan’s effort succeeded spectacularly. During his second term, the Republicans forged what would be a three-decades-and-counting alliance with evangelicals, broke the Democrats’ hold on local offices in the South, and created a class of suburban Republican voters that would carry the Republican class of 1994 and George W. Bush to their later victories. For the first time since FDR, Republicans began to think of themselves not as a permanent minority but as an emerging majority. But the greatest victory was Reagan’s own—by bringing his own constituents into the party, he was able to realize Eisenhower’s dream of an electoral machine that perpetuated his agenda after the end of his own career.


Galvin’s account of all this is disciplined and scholarly, with accordingly focused conclusions. Still, the lessons are hard to miss. One is that trying to push an agenda from the White House, using the organs of the party, is usually a mug’s game. Sweeping legislative accomplishments like the New Deal and the Civil Rights Act were the result of an ambitious president, a disciplined Congress, and outside movements pushing for concrete policy goals; if the second and third components aren’t in place, there’s not much the president can do to gin them up, regardless of the size of his base. What he can do, and do effectively, is play the long ball: a popular president is the best branding device a political party can hope for, and a political party is the best means the president has for extending the brand.

Barack Obama is the first Democratic president of the modern era to take office with a Republican’s sense of vulnerability, the knowledge that his party’s hold on power, however robust it may seem, may prove tenuous. And the novel design of the Obama campaign—its largely self-sustaining, volunteer- and small-donor-driven structure—provides him with a rare opportunity as president. Unlike previous cash-strapped Democrats, who arrived in the Oval Office with onerous campaign debts and had to make hard choices about how to spend what money they had, Obama can afford to invest in both his own projects and the party’s. Obama won the 2008 election with an unheard-of $18 million left over—money that, according to a Politico analysis of Federal Elections Commission filings, has allowed the DNC to not only add scores of OFA staffers to its payroll but also bring the DNC war chest to within $7 million of the historically better-funded RNC’s. OFA now has paid staffers in all but one state (Oklahoma), most of them embedded with local Democratic parties and well networked with local ex-Obama campaign volunteers. All but one of the half-dozen state-party chairs I talked to spoke of this apparatus in hopeful terms.

But so far, Obama has failed to do what Reagan and Eisenhower did: he has asked his supporters to rally around Democratic causes, but he has balked at asking them to become Democrats. He has asked his loyal enthusiasts to take ownership of a presidency, but not of a party. The distinction matters—you can support a presidency, but you can’t really participate in it. OFA has called on its members to contribute money, make phone calls on a handful of issues, even knock on doors for Democratic candidates running in off-year elections in November (desultory get-out-the-vote efforts which, unsurprisingly, turned out only dribs and drabs of Obama’s electorate for John Corzine and Creigh Deeds in their failed gubernatorial campaigns in New Jersey and Virginia). But it hasn’t asked them to, for instance, work on behalf of primary candidates who reflect their values, shape local party platforms, or run for office themselves. It’s why, for all of its fervent activity, OFA looks less like a movement than a cheering section.

Bringing his supporters into the party would run counter to the image Obama projected during and after the campaign, that of a man who wants to transcend the old political categories, an inclination that seems deeply rooted in his political nature. And an invitation to join the party is also necessarily an invitation to shake it up—the same Democrats seeking to enlist OFA’s volunteer army this year could find themselves facing its members in a primary battle first. But these are necessary risks for Obama and his partisans to take. Success in politics is incremental, and a party, as Eisenhower observed, is a vastly more durable thing than a presidency—it can carry out a mission above the churn of individual flesh that moves under its banner. Belief in it is what made Reaganism not just a fad but a political paradigm, one that filled the vacuum left behind by a receding Democratic establishment. In the wake of the Republican collapses of 2006 and 2008, Obama has a similar opportunity.

If the idea of turning Obama’s dewy-eyed idealists into nut-cutting party politicos seems cynical, it shouldn’t. Reagan’s bid to pull his voters into the Republican Party was simply a pragmatic acknowledgment of how the system worked, and a bid to prove that it could work. Obama, a man whose move into politics stemmed from an early dissatisfaction with the limits of working outside the system, surely understands this as well as anyone. What remains to be seen is whether he can explain it to his most loyal followers.


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Charles Homans is an editor of the Washington Monthly.  
 
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