"Technology, like the grassroots focus, would be at the core of our campaign from the start..."
-- David Plouffe, "The Audacity to Win"
Is it time for Plouffe, the architect behind Obama's winning campaign, to take Organizing for America out of the Democratic National Committee?
Organizing for America, aka OFA, was once Obama for America, the most technology-savvy political operation in American history. It's home to by far the biggest e-mail list in Washington -- some 13 million e-mail addresses of supporters who not just financially supported Obama's candidacy but also collectively clocked hundreds of hours in volunteer time to help elect him president: knocking on doors, making phone calls, spreading the word around within their own online social networks. In other words, supporters didn't just give money. They gave money and worked for Obama for free.Repeatedly and with growing emphasis throughout his 390-page book, Plouffe notes the critical role that tech-powered volunteers played during the nearly two-year campaign.
"Our secret weapon, day in and day out, was our army of volunteers, real people who brought Obama's message and ideals to their neighbords, co-workers and fellow citizens," he writes in the closing chapter of the book. Plouffe is a key advisor to the DNC and considered by staffers there as an "inspiration" and "godfather of OFA." "Part of the reason our campaign was so successful is that we were able to identify early that many of the people we wanted to reach were spending more of their time on the Internet."
This isn't just the function of technology, however. This is a testament to an emerging digital democracy in which technological tools have lowered the barrier for political participation and a decentralized structure of individuals -- of all backgrounds, from any party -- are like light bulbs waiting to be turned on.
But a year after this "army of volunteers" swept Obama to victory -- and nine months after Obama moved to the White House while his grassroots list was housed under the DNC -- there's been a steady, gnawing disconnect between the online masses who turned out to vote and the man they elected president. There are various reasons for this, according to interviews with several poltical observers and former campaign staffers. First, people have just tuned out. Elections are, at bottom, about winning. That's easy. Governing, on the other hand, is far more complicated; winning sometimes means compromising. Second, OFA is under-staffed and lacks resources, making it all the more difficult to keep engaging Obama's supporters beyond the regular e-mails that land in their inboxes. Chris Hughes, the Facebook co-founder who joined Obama's Internet campaign early in 2007, told me: "Compared to what they [OFA] have now to what we had during the campaign -- well, you can't compare it. It's night and day."
And third, and most important, OFA is under the auspices of the DNC, which reports to the White House. So what about the self-identified Independents and Republicans who were active members of OFA when it stood for Obama for America? Where do they fit at the DNC? Is the supposedly bottom-up nature of the Obama campaign basically taking top-down orders from the Obama White House?
"They were outsiders who made a conscious decision to play the inside game," Joe Trippi, who ran Howard Dean's Internet-fueled campaign, told me. "They decided that the best way to get things done is to get somebody who can run legislation through, who can tough-mouth and arm-twist anyone who gets out of line. That's why Rahm" -- Rahm Emanuel, the long-time Hill insider and former House member who's now Obama's chief of staff -- "is there. To arm twist people and Rahm is good at that."
Adds Micah Sifry, editor of TechPresident, which has closely tracked Obama's online presence since 2008 primaries: "For the most part, the people in the campaign who really got the meaning and substance of the grassroots movement are not in the White House. So you've got the old media guys and you've the old politics guys used to the old ways of doing things, and the result is that the alternative power structure that Obama needed to take over Hillary [Clinton] during the campaign has been de-emphasized -- well, until they really needed it on health care."
Two weeks ago, with urging from OFA, citizens advocating for Obama's health care reform made 300,000 calls in one day to their Congress members. A DNC spokesman said about 75,000 of the calls were generated through online social networks.
But, as Sifry points out, the grassroots activities being done on behalf of Obama aren't being adequately covered by the mainstream media that the Obama White House -- and particularly Emanuel -- is obsessed with. The day after Congress members were flooded with calls, for example, an 878-word story in the New York Times headlined "Obama Takes a Health Care Hiatus" did not mention the calls. "The old political media doesn't know what to do with this, they don't understand how to cover it, they have no benchmark for it," Sifry told me.
And it underlines the specific challenge facing the White House -- and, by extension, Plouffe, who orchestrated the campaign that landed Obama there. No sitting president has ever amassed a grassroots movement as formidable and diverse as Obama's. As Plouffe writes in his book, "The largest two categories of donors to our campaign were retirees and students. I doubt that has ever before been the case in American politics." What do you do with this movement? How do you keep the Obama coalition of young voters, minorities and first-time voters engaged? How do you govern with it? Already, some worry that not enough outreach is being done with young voters.
It may be time for Plouffe to take OFA out of the DNC because, after all, he was the one who placed it there. He's profited from it, no doubt. As the New Republic reported last week, Plouffe's firm collected $376,000 from the DNC this year. But the so-called "godfather of OFA" is the one who needs to help save it.
So, one year after the election, what do you think should happen to OFA? Tweet your response (our Twitter hashtag is #OneYearLater), or post it in the comments section.
Follow Jose Antonio Vargas on Twitter: www.twitter.com/joseiswriting