WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama is preparing to expand the fiscal cliff fight beyond the confines of Washington, travelling the country and leaning on Democratic activist groups to help apply political pressure.
The goal, organizers said, is to keep engaged the activists and followers who have stood with Obama through two campaigns, and to begin applying external pressure to the president's negotiations with congressional Republicans.
And so, top Obama operatives are gaming out ways to squeeze political capital out of the 2012 elections, aiming to affect the lame-duck session in Congress. Obama previewed the strategy in a conference call with activists after the election, saying that a second term that will include some barnstorming across the country.
"One of my pledges for a second term is to get out of Washington more often," Obama said.
On that same call, one of president's top campaign aides, Mitch Stewart, alerted listeners that they would be asked to help support the White House as it deals with the expiring Bush tax cuts and looming $1 trillion in sequestration-related cuts. Stewart added that some campaign operatives would remain in Chicago "going through what worked in 2012 and what didn't work in 2012 and trying to figure out how we as an organization can get better." He concluded by pointing the 30,000 call participants to a newly developed initiative called TheAction.org.
The organization is a loose coalition of 26 progressive-leaning groups in various states (Innovation Ohio, Progress Texas, Better Georgia) as well as Washington (Small Business Majority and Protect Your Care.)
The veterans of the 2012 campaign as well as the Obama White House will work to back the elimination of the Bush tax cuts on people with incomes of more than $250,000. The coalition is still in its nascent stages, as shown by the relatively calm Twitter account it operates. A "tool kit" being distributed by the group includes letterhead, Twitter backgrounds, and Facebook cover photos. One organizer said the coalition would spearhead rallies, encourage op-eds and letters to the editor and, if an infusion of cash comes around, launch media campaigns. More broadly, TheAction.org is designed to harness the post-election energy of Obama supporters into real grassroots pressure on Congress.
"Coming out of the first election it felt like almost a celebration," said one group operative who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person wasn't authorized to speak on behalf of all the coalition members. "You didn't really have this budget fight that people were hanging onto. It feels very different right now. People know this budget fight is coming up and these Bush tax cuts are set to expire and that it's a huge deal to the middle class. Everyone knows what the issue is at hand now. And there are all these people asking what to do next. We happen to be the folks that put it together."
The record of efforts like this is mixed. Progressive grassroots movements have been effective in the past, but usually in opposition to a policy or agenda -- President George W. Bush's efforts to privatize Social Security, for example. During the first Obama term, they were organized infrequently, in part because groups often weren't united over the administration's agenda. (It was tough to rally support for a public option for health care when the president wasn't strongly advocating one.) Also, the White House had decided to play more of an inside game.
Circumstances have changed, Obama officials said. And lessons have been learned. Increasingly, signs point to a robust outside-game operation to help the president move his agenda during the lame-duck session and beyond. On Sunday night, Obama's 2012 campaign manager, Jim Messina, sent out a survey asking recipients to provide specifics on their volunteerism in addition to their legislative priorities. The idea was to collect data and to make the campaign apparatus more effective for the years ahead.
We want to know "what from their perspective worked and what from their perspective, more importantly, did not work," explained one top Obama aide.