WASHINGTON -- In a bare-bones room on the second floor of an office building blocks away from the Capitol lies one of the more influential political operations in Washington D.C.
Roughly forty staffers sit along white tables in the room, only a handful of whom even the biggest political junkies would know by name. They work in relative silence, staring into one of the two computer monitors in front of them, headphones covering their ears. On the walls are mounted a dozen 42-inch televisions turned to one of the three major cable news networks. Pipes are exposed in the ceiling above and the cement floor below has no carpeting, revealing painted instructions for future movers. Off to the side, a server gives off a heated, humming sound.
It is in that server that the one of the largest collections of campaign-related video footage will soon to be stored. American Bridge 21st Century is a relatively new Democratic operation -- conceived by David Brock, the founder of the highly successful progressive media tracking organization Media Matters, and run by former high-ranking Hill and campaign staffers -- but its ambitions, as exemplified by plans for that server, are far-reaching: The group aims to redefine the art of opposition politics.
"I think I can do this better," Bradley Beychok, American Bridge's campaign director recalled Brock telling him just before Beychok came onboard. "I think I can do this smarter. I think I can do this on a larger scale."
As the 2012 campaign gears up, outside groups like American Bridge are indeed working on a larger scale, certainly when viewed in the context of recent Democratic Party history. In 2008, the Obama campaign urged donors to funnel their contributions straight into their coffers -- thereby depriving other organizations of desperately needed funds -- but there have been no such directives this cycle. When two high-ranking White House officials set off to start a group of their own, no one stood in their way. The result was Priorities USA and Priorities USA Action, a non-profit and super PAC hybrid.
"[Obama] shut us down when I tried to set up a super PAC in '08," recalled Paul Begala, the longtime Democratic consultant who helped those two former senior staffers, Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney, launch the Priorities USA enterprise. "I didn't agree, but he was my leader so I shut it down."
Begala added that he was impressed with the party's efforts to improve its operations. "I think it is great that we win the White House when we produce candidates with talent like Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. I think it is more impressive that Republicans win the White House with B and C level talent. George W. Bush was not Ronald Reagan in terms of talent. And yet he won ... and part of that is because there was a permanent conservative infrastructure that we lacked."
There are multiple components to that infrastructure, and the groups that have sprouted up during the past year have managed to carve out individual niches. American Bridge has limited its scope primarily to opposition research. The group was responsible for unearthing the highly embarrassing revelation that an autobiographical portion of Sen. Scott Brown's (R-Mass.) website lifted language from an Elizabeth Dole speech. Currently, it has 15 trackers, staffers whose sole job is to follow and tape Republican candidates, in the four main early presidential primary states and ten states where key senate elections are taking place (Nevada is the sole overlap).
Several top strategists, including Susan McCue, former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), and J.B. Poersch, former director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, launched Majority PAC to help Senate candidates specifically. Majority PAC has focused on the 2012 race and television ads, while other groups like Protect Your Care, which started with a $5 million budget, have focused on specific issues such as defending the president's health care legislation.
"The growth in outside groups allows us to micro-target issues that aren’t necessarily the story of the day or the main focus of the party committees," explained Protect Your Care spokesman Eddie Vale. "Regardless of what has been happening in each individual news cycle, we have been able to maintain a constant health care offensive."
The mothership, if there is one, is the Center for American Progress. The powerful D.C.-based organization founded by former Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta in 2003 is a think tank combined with an advocacy group, equipped with a blog and rapid-fire twitter feed. Its capacity to produce narrative-changing news -- whether through its own trackers or investigative researchers -- is envied even by seasoned political reporters. "They break more stories than we do," one conceded.
In 2008, CAP and Media Matters helped support the outside government groups that the Obama campaign deprived of funding sources. And while CAP doesn't have to play the role of Daddy Warbucks four years later, the organization embodies and embraces the belief that non-party infrastructure is the future.
"If you look at the broad, long sweep of history, the American people are more distrustful of government, more distrustful of politics, and more distrustful of political institutions, and the right captured this earlier on than the left," CAP's new President Neera Tanden told The Huffington Post in a recent interview.
"It's like crying over spilled milk to wring your hands over institutions disaggregating," she added. "This is not the world we're going to live in, even in five years. We're always thinking about new ways to communicate to folks and new ways to get information to folks and it's been a hallmark of CAP. One thing I definitely want to continue is to think about how you're always innovating in everything you do, because those who don't fall behind and die."
Innovation isn't the only key to survival. Cash matters too. And while CAP has been blessed with resources -- from 2005 to 2009, its staff grew from 100 to 250 -- groups newer to the scene are encountering difficulties.
When Burton said he hoped to raise $100 million, top operatives in the party expressed confusion, not because they doubted that he could do it but because they didn't understand why he'd raise expectations that high. Sure enough, on Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that the organization had spent less than $1 million on advertisements -- a number that is certain to increase as the campaign gets more critical but failed to match anticipation.
American Bridge was initially conceived as an all-in-one political shop. But it quickly scaled back its mission. The group's president, Rodell Mollineau, told The Huffington Post earlier this year that he viewed the entity as a $15 million operation.
"This shit ain't free," he said. "You can quote me on that."
So far, aides say, the group is on track to meet its budget, much of which goes into payroll.
Individual progress aside, the development of an outside infrastructure has presented the party both with challenges and opportunity. Burton's group, for instance, recently launched a $100,000 digital ad campaign against Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP frontrunner. The investment was certainly appreciated within Obama campaign headquarters, but the message was a touch off-key: emphasizing Romney's conservatism rather than his opportunism.
Priorities USA and the Obama campaign are prohibited by law from coordinating. But the Democratic National Committee, which serves as an arm of the reelection campaign, has brought on board an operative -- Ellen Qualls, formerly of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.)'s office -- to work with allied groups where is it legally permissible. And where there have been holes, they've moved to plug them, launching an ad campaign promoting the president's jobs package and running a Hispanic media campaign pushing back on Republican attacks.
The power, indeed, still rests within the party, and the Obama campaign in particular. Ken Goldstein, the president of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, notes that even though outside party advertising has risen over the past decade, "the percentage of ads being aired by candidates has stayed the same." But that doesn't mean that party leadership isn't grateful for the additional help.
"What Barack Obama has today is what Bill Clinton could have really used. And that is this progressive infrastructure around him," said Begala. "We are building the infrastructure that will sustain progressives even when we don't have at the top a guy with Obama's talent or Clinton."
The slideshow below shows how President Obama's 2012 campaign is shaping up:
With a video emailed and texted to supporters, President Barack Obama announced he would be running for reelection on April 4, 2011. "We're doing this now because the politics we believe in does not start with expensive TV ads or extravaganzas, but with you -- with people organizing block by block, talking to neighbors, co-workers, and friends. And that kind of campaign takes time to build," the email read.
In his 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama raised a staggering $750 million. The president is promising to hit the billion dollar mark this time around, which would make him the first president in U.S. history to do so. In his 2008 bid for the White House, Obama ran a famously grassroots campaign, securing a record four million individual donors. With a disenchanted base, the grassroots efforts in his 2012 campaign have been less successful; the campaign failed to meet its goal of 20,000 small donors by the end of September 2011, reported ABC. Many of Obama's early supporters have become disheartened with the president, and many are in worse financial shape than they were three years ago. Losing small donors, however, still leaves Obama with the corporate backers he won over in 2008. Of his top ten donors, eight were major corporations and banks, including Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase. Obama has the weight of the presidency behind him this time around. "His 2012 campaign will be a bigger, slicker machine likely to dwarf that of his eventual Republican opponent," Reuters reported. Successful fundraising can also help the Democratic Party win back seats in the House and Senate. From the Associated Press: Obama gave millions from his campaign war chest to Congressional candidates in 2008. Every seat in the House will be up for grabs again in 2012, as well as one-third of the seats in the Senate, and many experts say the battle for Congress -- particularly for the Senate -- could be the real fight. The president has held several fundraisers this fall, reaching out to key voting blocks like African Americans and progressives. In October the president's reelection campaign announced they surpassed 1 million donors since collections began in April. The campaign and Democratic National Committee reported a total of $70 million for the third quarter.
President Obama's approval ratings hit a new low at the end of October. A Gallup poll found Obama's approval had fallen to 41 percent, a new low and a big drop from the previous quarter rating of 46.8 percent. But despite voter frustration over high unemployment rates, Obama's likability as a person has kept him afloat in the polls. Americans' approval of the president has risen and fallen over the past year: It spiked after a budget deal with Republicans was reached, after the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and of course again after Osama bin Laden was killed. The numbers dipped in August during the debt ceiling debacle. Check out HuffPost Pollster's interactive tool tracking Obama's approval ratings through time.
The current pool of candidates in the Republican primary race may be one of the best things President Obama has going for him in his re-election bid. The GOP has been hesitant to rally around any one of the contenders, and a number of high-profile Republicans decided against a run. Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has been a steady frontrunner, but hasn't garnered widespread excitement from members of his party. Instead Republicans urged New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to make a bid for the White House, and many conservatives were hopeful Sarah Palin would join the race. (Both decided not to run.) Romney has picked up key endorsements from Christie and Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran. However a HuffPost analysis shows that the number of GOP endorsements is much lower than is usual at this point in the race, indicating the Republican party is far from a consensus. Attendees at a Republican National Committee (RNC) meeting in May found the field of candidates "uninspiring," CNN reported. "I am not seeing lightning striking for any of the candidates at this point," said Nevada Republican Chairman Bob List at the event. "But Republicans are eager to find the right candidate to coalesce around."
President Obama announced the American Jobs Act in September, a sweeping $447 billion bill to boost the country's sinking economy. The White House says the bill would create 1.9 million new jobs -- just a fraction of the 15 million unemployed Americans. Republicans and some Democrats oppose Obama's plan to pay for the jobs bill by hiking taxes on corporations and wealthy Americans. Though many aspects of the legislation had been previously supported by Republicans in Congress, the bill was blocked in the Senate. Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.) accused the Republican Party of purposefully allowing the economy to struggle in order to score political points for the 2012 elections. Obama has vowed to continue to fight to pass individual pieces of the bill, beginning with a provision to protect the jobs of teachers, firefighters and police. The Senate voted down the provision in October.
As campaign season heats up President Obama has been reaching out to the key voting blocs the helped get him elected in 2008, such as African Americans and liberals. In September the president addressed the Congressional Black Caucus at an annual awards dinner and called on blacks to "put on your marching shoes" to follow him into battle. "I need your help," he said. "Shake it off. Stop complainin'. Stop grumblin'. Stop cryin'. We are going to press on. We have work to do." Though Obama was speaking about the economy and his jobs bill, the undercurrent of the speech was that without African American support he might not secure a second term. Black leaders, as well as progressives generally, have been increasingly critical of Obama for giving away too much in talks with Republicans, and not doing enough to fight black unemployment, which is nearly double the national average, the Associated Press reports. Obama also took a trip to the West Coast to speak to progressive Democrats, who have been growing disenchanted with the president. Hoping to reinvigorate the liberal voting bloc, Obama said during fundraisers up and down the West Coast that the GOP vision of government would "cripple America." The president's rhetoric has shifted from a spirit of compromise, to attacks on conservatives, reports the Associated Press.
A run-down of the president's accomplishments and how the most controversial among them were received. Health Care Reform: The Affordable Care Act is arguably Obama's most contentious legislative accomplishment. Most Democrats praise the law for aiming to provide all Americans with access to affordable health care, while the Republican party wishes to repeal the law, saying it ups taxes and government spending, while increasing government control over health care. Some question the constitutionality of an individual mandate. The Supreme Court will be the judge of that. The president faced the most sustained criticism from his base during the health care debate, as he negotiated away and belittled the public insurance option, and made back-room deals with major industry players. Economic Recovery: Obama's $789 billion economic stimulus package has faced scrutiny from Republicans since passing Congress with little Republican support. However, supporters credit the legislation -- one of the largest in history -- with pulling the economy back from the brink after the 2008 financial collapse and preventing a second Great Depression. Republicans criticized the plan for relying too heavily on spending rather than tax cuts, though a third of the package consisted of the latter. As early as February 2009, HuffPost explained why the stimulus was too small and would fall short of its goal. Withdrawing from Iraq: Fulfilling a campaign promise to end the war in Iraq, Obama announced Oct. 21 that he will pull all U.S. troops out of Iraq by the end of the year. DADT Repeal: Obama repealed the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy that forbid gay men and women from serving openly in the U.S. military, a law he called "discriminatory." The repeal was a historic moment for the gay rights movement. Some Republican candidates have promised to reinstate the policy. Fair Pay Act: The first bill Obama signed into law is aimed at achieving equal pay for women. Stem Cell Research: Obama overturned the Bush-era ban on funding embryonic stem cell research, offering federal support for scientists researching cures for disease. New START treaty: Obama signed a bilateral treaty between the U.S. and Russia that aims to cut the number of nuclear weapons around the world in half. Child Nutrition Act: Obama signed into law a bill to combat childhood obesity and promote child nutrition in schools. Food Safety Act: The food safety act to help prevent deadly outbreaks of foodborne illness was the first major overhaul of America's food safety system since the 1930s. Wall Street Reform: Obama's financial industry reform bill left the major banks in tact, but promised to create a mechanism whereby failing institutions would be seized and unwound by federal regulators. That element of the law has yet to be tested. The signature achievement of the bill was the creation of the Consumer Financial Product Bureau, an agency crafted by consumer advocate and now-Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren, which was fought energetically by Wall Street, the GOP and powerful Democrats. Supreme Court Justices: Obama appointed two justices to the United States Supreme Court: Justice Sonya Sotomayor in 2009, the first Latina to serve on the Supreme Court, and Justice Elena Kagan in 2010.
In May 2011 President Obama announced that Osama Bin Laden had been killed by a U.S. operation launched in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The president said U.S. intelligence operatives received a tip of bin Laden's hideout and took action. "Justice has been done," Obama said from the White House. Upon taking office Obama distanced himself from the "War on Terror" he inherited from his predecessor George W. Bush. He ordered an end to the phrase, instead calling it a "Global Contingency Operation." Despite the name change, the assault on civil liberties that was central to Bush's "War on Terror" continues under President Obama's "operation." He pledged to bring the Iraq war to an end, and has withdrawn roughly 120,000 troops since taking office. Obama announced Oct. 21 that he will pull all U.S. troops out of Iraq by the end of the year, fulfilling a long-held campaign promise.
The 2009 stimulus negotiations, in which Republicans got several hundred billion dollars worth of tax cuts without agreeing to vote for the bill, were a sign of things to come. Negotiations over the 2011 budget reached a climax in April, with a showdown between Republicans and Democrats that threatened to shut down the federal government if the two parties could not reach a deal. At the eleventh hour, Congress pushed through a deal that was hailed as a victory for Republicans, because of the spending cuts Democrats agreed to. Democrats strongly opposed any cuts to spending. Republicans initially asked for $61 billion in cuts. Democrats later refused to go over $33 billion. The deal settled on $38.5 billion in cuts. Republicans had also tried to force social issues as part of the deal, hoping to defund Planned Parenthood and to stop government regulations on greenhouse gases, without success. However these and deeper cuts to spending are likely to be issues in the next budget fight. Months later Democrats and Republicans again went head to head over the raising the debt ceiling. The U.S. government reached its borrowing limit - $14.3 trillion - and risked defaulting on payments if they didn't if the debt limit wasn't raised. Republicans refused to raise the limit without drastic cuts, which Democrats chastised political grandstanding that cause the country to default. Again a last-minute deal was struck in which Republicans agreed to raise the debt ceiling enough to keep borrowing through 2013 in exchange for spending cuts. A super-committee was created to come up with a plan to trim the federal budget by an additional $2.4 trillion. In September the U.S. narrowly averted a government shutdown once more over negotiations on a spending bill. Republicans wanted to offset funding for disaster relief with cuts; Democrats refused. In the end Republicans caved on the cuts, but got Democrats to agree to give less cash to FEMA than they had wanted. The budget fight isn't over yet. In November Congress will have to figure out the rest of the 2012 federal budget. At that point the super committee created to save 1.2 trillion from the budget will reveal its plan.