05/14/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Will Obama's Army Return to Save Health Reform, Progressive Agenda?

With the president and most Democratic leaders expressing increasing confidence in health care passage as soon as this week, it's still unclear if the House will have the needed votes to pass it. And if the votes aren't there, it could seriously undermine the chances for any element of the labor and progressive agenda from passing, whether it's a meaningful jobs bill to financial reform or even reviving the now-dormant Employee Free Choice Act to promote a level playing field for organizing.

By early Monday morning, there were only a handful of online sign-ups, at best, at Organizing for America events in some key swing districts to make phone calls for health reform, so it's not clear what kind of clout progressive activists will have now. Actual turnout was no doubt better, but it's still a sign of the disenchantment among those were once Obama's most avid supporters -- and how the progressive base has been partly MIA during the drive for health reform because of weak messaging and national leadership.

Some labor union leaders are also starting to voice their frustration with the administration, as at a recent AFL-CIO Executive Council Meeting and public comments by Teamster president James Hoffa, even as the union movement and its allies are ramping up last-minute efforts to push health care reform across the goal line. But As Dick Meister of quoted Hoffa on the administration, "We obviously hoped that more would have been done. We're disappointed that jobs were not emphasized the first year. We're disappointed that the president got bogged down in the health care debate."

Nonetheless, even with their misgivings about the president's final health plan, labor unions are playing a major role in the drive by the Health Care for America Now coalition to rally supporters to "positively" pressure Democrats -- although the scope of the lobbying activism by grass-roots supporters of health reform remains unclear. At the same time, some unions like SEIU are starting to show their clout, as the Plum Line blog reported,
"SEIU Warns Dems: If You Don't Back Reform, We Won't Back You."

There's an ominous real-world sign, though, that the positive pressure on conservadems supported by mainstream liberal groups may not actually deliver results. Obama's grass-roots arm, Organizing for America, claims its supporters pledged to donate 9 million hours of work to back Democrats who support health care reform, they're hardly turning out in droves to pressure the members of Congress now. But even a cursory check of online phone bank pledges at Pittsburgh's OFA office early Monday morning to pressure swing Congressman Jason Altermire showed "zero" sign-ups at that office. As one knowledgeable activist told me recently, "People are bummed out about health care, and it's hard to get them revved up about it [again]. But if we don't win on health care, there isn't anything else going to be done on the progressive agenda this year."

The nearly 14-million strong Organizing for America base of Obama supporters from his campaign was going to be his secret weapon in pushing for reform, but the sword of activism it promised has largely been sheathed as supporters were urged, at best, to support vague principles of health care reform rather than tapping into their potential anger at insurance company rip-offs. Now the result of weak leadership and a muddled message are coming home to roost. Perhaps the once-muzzled OFA members who were asked last year to show up at desultory house parties and "share" with each other personal tales about health reform -- rather than do anything concrete to pass real reform -- aren't flocking to back a president and health care plan that they feel let them down.

The inside story of Organizing for America's failure was told last month in Rolling Stone with a brutally honest journalism that's been missing from most progressive publications. Tim Dickinson observed, looking at OFA's failure to drum up support for the failed Senate bid of Martha Coakley in Massachusetts as a sign of a broader organizing downturn:

It wasn't until 10 days before the election, after OFA finally woke up to Coakley's cratering poll numbers, that the group sent out an urgent appeal to members, asking them to help turn out Massachusetts voters from phone banks across the country. But after having been sidelined by the White House for most of its first year, OFA discovered that most of its 13 million supporters had tuned out. Only 45,000 members responded to the last-minute call to arms.

In the final week, volunteers organized 1,000 phone banks and placed more than 2.3 million calls to Massachusetts. OFA also scrambled to place 50 staffers in the state to gin up a door-knocking operation. But it was too late: In a race decided by 110,000 votes, 850,000 of those who voted for Obama in Massachusetts failed to turn out for Coakley. "The relationship-building process we did with Obama for America," concedes [OFA director Mitch] Stewart, "is not something you can manufacture in three weeks..."

The problems started before Obama was even elected. While his top advisers worked for months to carefully plot out a transition to governing, their plan to institutionalize its campaign apparatus was as ill-considered as George Bush's invasion of Iraq. "There was absolutely no transition planning," says Micah Sifry, the co-founder of techPresident, a watchdog group that just published a special report on OFA's first year. In what Sifry decries as a case of "criminal political negligence," Obama's grass-roots network effectively went dark for two months after Election Day, failing to engage activists eager for their new marching orders. "The movement moment," he says, "was lost..."

Rather than using OFA to engage millions of voters to turn up the heat on Congress, the president yoked his political fortunes to the unabashedly transactional style of politics advocated by his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel. Health care reform -- the centerpiece of his agenda -- was no longer about mobilizing supporters to convince their friends, families and neighbors in all 50 states. It was about convincing 60 senators in Washington. It became about deals.

"There were two ways for Barack Obama to twist arms on Capitol Hill," says political consultant Joe Trippi. "You can get the best arm-bender in town to be your chief of staff -- and I don't think there'd be many people who would deny that Rahm is a pretty good pick. Or the American people can be your arm-bender. What I don't understand is why the White House looked at it as an either/or proposition. You could have had both."

The shift in tactics left OFA sitting on the sidelines. A far cry from the audacious movement that rose to the challenge of electing America's first black president, the group has performed like a flaccid, second-rate MoveOn, a weak counterweight to the mass protests and energetic street antics of the Tea Baggers. Rather than turning out thousands of voters at rallies for the "public option" in health care reform, the White House instructed OFA to adopt a toothless, almost invisible approach: asking followers to sign a generic "statement of support." In July, when OFA ran ads asking voters to call their senators and urge them to vote for health care reform, the effort was quickly slapped down by party leaders. "It's a waste of money to have Democrats running ads against Democrats," fumed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

As Dickinson and other critics have observed, the White House also moved to keep liberal organizations in line by not posing any challenges to Democrats obstructing health care reform. That's started to change recently, with's political action arm moving to raise money to challenge conservative Democrats, and the mainstream reform groups starting in a far more highly visible way in September -- after the Tea Partiers dominated the news in August -- to target insurance companies in TV and print ads, promoting the message that "If Insurance Companies Win, You Lose."

But as George Packer points out in a recent New Yorker piece on "Obama's Lost Year ": "The White House and its allies didn't push for advertisements against insurance and drug companies; they didn't take the offensive early on to create outside pressure on Republicans in Congress [and my view: didn't create such pressure on wavering Democrats]; and they didn't effectively use the Obama grass-roots movement and progressive organizations to embarrass Republican senators in vulnerable states like Ohio and Maine."

Dickinson adds to that analysis with his blistering look at the compromises engineered by the White House and Organizing for America, housed at the Democratic National Committee:

In a little-publicized effort, top administration officials met each week at the Capital Hilton with members of a coalition called the Common Purpose Project, which included leading activist groups like Change to Win, Rock the Vote and MoveOn. In August, when members of the coalition planned to run ads targeting conservative Democrats who opposed health care reform, Rahm Emanuel showed up in person to put a stop to the campaign. According to several participants, Emanuel yelled at the assembled activists, calling them "fucking retards" and telling them he wasn't going to let them derail his legislative winning streak. "We're 13-0 going into health care!" he screamed. "We're not going to be 13-1!"

Emanuel also locked down OFA: When liberal activists approached the group about targeting conservative Democrats, they were told, "We won't give you call lists. We can't go after Democrats -- we're part of the DNC." It was exactly the danger that [former campaign adviser Steve] Hildebrand had warned about when [former campaign manager David ] Plouffe made OFA part of the party apparatus. In the end, the activists scrapped the organizing effort, leaving the president without a left flank in the health care debate.

"Instead of channeling the energy of the base, they've been squashing it," says Markos Moulitsas, founder of the influential online forum Daily Kos. "When special interests are represented by people like Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson, you've got to go after those people. Instead, you had OFA railing against Republican obstructionists, when the Republicans were irrelevant to the debate."

Now, absent any meaningful pressure on the left to keep wavering Democrats in line, the House's top whip-counter, Rep. James Clyburn, signaled over the weekend they don't have the needed votes but hope to get them soon. As McClatchy reported:

The forthcoming health-care vote puts Clyburn, the highest-ranking African-American in Congress, in the tough position of securing enough Democratic support to gain final passage of a historic initiative that will help define the legacy of President Barack Obama. Thirty-nine Democrats voted against the original House health-care measure in November, 24 of them Blue Dogs.

The outcome, he said, could be tighter than the 220-215 vote by which the House passed the original health-care bill in November.

"I need 216 votes to pass this bill," Clyburn told McClatchy. "I think I'm going to get 216 votes. It could be closer than last time. All I want is 216 votes."

On the plus side, progressive groups are finally catching up to corporations,but only because giveaways to Big Pharma have put that industry in the "reform" camp and willing to make ad buys. There wasn't that much remaining, apparently, of the $82 million progressive groups vowed last year to spend on reform, and in terms of strategic impact, it's still unclear if it was money well spent in ways that promoted sharp, effective messages and a mass mobilization for reform. Still, as the New York Times reports, big ad buys are on their way, but congressmen are still hearing more from opponents than supporters, although that could start changing this week:

An alliance of groups supporting the health care plan, which works closely with the White House and Democratic leaders, had been spending far less and focusing on fewer districts. But after pharmaceutical companies made a $12 million investment for a final advertising push, spending by both sides for the first time is now nearly the same.

Not only are these swing Democrats being pummeled in the new spate of advertising -- which could total $30 million before week's end -- but extensive efforts are under way in Congressional districts, where groups on both sides of the issue are using tactics similar to get-out-the-vote drives to urge constituents to contact their lawmakers. Mr. Obama is calling lawmakers, too, and on Monday is traveling to Ohio to open a weeklong campaign to close this act of the health care debate.

Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the No. 3 Democrat in the House, said Sunday on "Meet the Press" on NBC that he had yet to lock down enough votes to pass the bill. But he added: "We'll be working it going into the week. I am also very confident that we'll get this done."

Several on-the-fence Democrats said they were scrambling to sort out their constituents' views as the outside noise grows deafening.

"There is definitely more passion from people opposed to the bill," said Representative Jason Altmire of Pennsylvania, whose offices have been inundated with protests and calls. "I have to decide between passing this bill or doing nothing at all. I need to do what's best for my district."

Organizing for America, though, is asking its members at this late date to make a final plea to Congressmen like Altmire, as in this sample script:

"I'm calling to let you know that I support President Obama's health reform proposal, and I'm not alone -- Organizing for America supporters nationwide have pledged over 9 million hours to volunteer for members of Congress and candidates who support reform.

Across the country, supporters of President Obama like me are calling their representatives to thank then if they've been fighting for reform, and ask them to support it if they haven't made up their mind.

I know that the final vote will be very close, and wanted to let you know that voters at home are standing with the president on health reform.

Thank you."

But given the right-wing's domination of the messaging about health care until recently, and the public showing only lukewarm support for what's labeled as the president's health care plan (even as they support individual elements of it), it's not at all obvious that these sort of appeals will be enough to turn the tide. But we'll never know unless there's a large turn-out of activist pressure with so much riding on the passage of health care reform.


This piece was adapted from an article that originally appeared at the Working In These Times blog, which covers reform issues affecting American workers.