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Shadow Elite: Has the Obama Organizing Machine Staged A Party Takeover?

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This is the first of two Shadow Elite columns on Organizing for America.

Do you know the President of the United States? No, we don't either, but you wouldn't know it from looking at our in-boxes, which have quite a few emails directly from, well, "Barack Obama," Vice President Biden, and a handful of deputies. Perhaps yours does too, if you're one of the 13 million people whose emails were collected during the 2008 presidential campaign.

The emails are the product of something quite novel in the annals of American politics, what Nation journalist Ari Melber calls "the largest governance organizing effort by a national party in history," an unprecedented attempt to convert "a winning campaign's volunteer network into an organization devoted to enacting a national agenda." They come from Organizing for America, the successor organization to the eminently-wired campaign organization Obama for America. O.F.A. is both novel and controversial, because some believe the organization has sidelined the broader Democratic party going into the crucial midterm elections, as well as the traditional media and even Congress.

Janine, a social anthropologist who explores emerging configurations of power and governance, sees O.F.A. as a sign of the times. In her book Shadow Elite, she charts a new system of influence that's emerged in recent decades, shaping decisions at the highest levels of government and business in ways that skirt checks and balances and defy accountability. Increasingly, top power brokers are bending traditional rules of both the state and the private sector; utilizing a rise in executive power; bypassing bureaucracies, personalizing and/or creating alternative structures; emphasizing loyalty to one's self, one's allies and one's cause rather than a broader organization; taking advantage of the very latest technology; and playing with the truth to brand and market their own agendas.

O.F.A. deploys many of these trademark tactics of the shadow elite. The organization calls itself a "project" of the Democratic National Committee, but that term greatly understates its significance. To fully understand "the project," let's begin, to borrow one of Mr. Obama's signature words, with its sheer audacity. After the election, the President was left with what Republican strategist Alex Vogel called "no better asset in politics today:" a direct, 24/7 email communication line with some 13 million supporters. And the White House hoped to use that asset in a way that no President had ever before: enlist his volunteer army, drafted during a campaign, to help him achieve policy goals once in office. To do so, the Obama team had to work around the system, in typical shadow elite fashion. According to the New York Times:

The White House ... faces legal limitations.... it cannot use a 13-million-person e-mail list .... because it was compiled for political purposes. That is an important reason Mr. Obama has decided to build a new organization within the Democratic Party, which does not have similar restrictions [emphasis added].

And so, Organizing for America was formed at the beginning of 2009, and this campaign movement became a part of the Democratic National Committee. But from many indications, it remains a mobilization machine that serves the interests of the President and his agenda, rather than the party as a whole.

A recent, much-talked-about New York Times Magazine piece suggested that the D.N.C. has been pushed aside by O.F.A., and questioned the Obama team's commitment to the broader Democratic party as the November elections fast approach. (The White House, as one would suspect, disputes this notion.)

The author, Matt Bai, writes:

O.F.A. has virtually supplanted the party structure...When Democratic officials inside the headquarters say "we," they are more often than not talking about O.F.A. rather than the party organization that existed before.

Two sources told Janine much the same thing. A source who recently left O.F.A. says the organization demands an almost religious-like devotion to Mr. Obama. Another Democratic operative calls it a "one-person group - focused only on Obama," and reports tension at the local level between O.F.A. and Democratic party representatives.

The D.N.C. is not the only institution potentially bypassed by O.F.A. Mainstream news outlets can find themselves cut out as well. That email access gives the President a day-and-night communication line with "the people," without a pesky middleman - a reporter, or other watchdog - to analyze the message. Here's a telling quote from Macon Phillips, the Administration's new media director, last year in the New York Times:

Historically the media has been able to draw out a lot of information and characterize it for people...And there's a growing appetite from people to do it themselves.

But the people doing the "characterizing" are not the volunteers, of course, but Obama spin masters, a fact that troubles media activists like Bill Kovach, chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, who responds in that same article:

They're beginning to create their own journalism, their own description of events of the day, but it's not an independent voice making that description....

Others are troubled by the expansion of executive power, at the expense of Congress, that might happen when a President can have the ability to pitch people any time, day or night, about items on their agenda. Janine points out in Shadow Elite that executive power has been steadily rising. To quote Ari Melber, who wrote a 70 plus-page report on O.F.A.'s first year:

Scholars, commentators and members of Congress have raised concerns about how presidents increasingly make appeals directly to the public, rather than working directly with the representative branch of government. Fortifying that model with a powerful, national whip operation could further undermine Congress' autonomy, in this narrative. Conservative critics of Obama have also argued that he would use his email lists to dominate Congress by conducting the presidency in 'campaign mode.'

As Janine argues in her book, the shadow elite are adept at creating novel alternative structures and new venues of power that suit their agenda, and O.F.A. seems to be a case in point.

O.F.A. will give social scientists plenty to chew on in the coming years, but for Democratic legislators up for election this fall, the question of O.F.A.'s role is far more urgent. Will O.F.A. come out strong in the next few months for the party's interests, or the President's? Keep an eye on that inbox, and November 2nd.

Next week, the Shadow Elite column will look at how Organizing for America brands itself grassroots, even as decision-making remains firmly in the hands of a few at the top.