THE BLOG
02/05/2013 02:46 pm ET | Updated Apr 07, 2013

Can O.F.A. and Obama's "Inside-Outside" Strategy Move Congress?

AP

President Obama's inauguration on Jan. 21 signaled the beginning of his final term as President of the United States. His progressive-themed speech enthralled and astounded the crowd as he threw caution to the wind and spoke plainly about his vision for America. He would have indeed made Dr. King proud on that M.L.K. day, as he talked about journeys to be completed and harkened back to Seneca Falls and the beginning of the woman's movement for equality and the right to vote in the early 20th century; to Selma and the civil rights struggle 50 years ago that still continues; and to Stonewall -- the little tavern in the heart of Greenwich Village that ignited the LGBT movement and their fight for dignity and equal protection under the law.

The words "we" and "together" permeated Mr. Obama's speech, along with the goals and issues that lie ahead, including, among other things, climate change, education, gun control, immigration, LGBT rights, women's pay equality and election reform. Mr. Obama noted at one point that "... our journey [is] not complete until no citizen is forced to wait hours to vote." Of course, he might have added "... or denied the right to vote," a practice that is still with us in many parts of the country and at the top of the "to-do" list of the GOP for 2014. The president spoke of an "activist" government, which is needed to care for the most vulnerable among us, and of a great nation that protects its people from life's worst hazards and misfortunes. He reminded us of the importance of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid -- programs that don't make us a nation of "takers," but strengthen us and free us to take the risks that make this country great.

I, for one, was taken by the boldness of this new President Obama, for he was articulating core democratic values, rather than progressive or partisan talking points. The follow-up on Feb. 12 in his State of the Union speech should be riveting. What will he be able to achieve in the next four years? Certainly a major focus in his second term should be the gross income disparity in our country that is undermining the American Dream and tearing at our collective soul. How can there be an economic recovery without addressing this issue?

To be sure, a weakened and teetering GOP will leave no stone unturned for a comeback in 2014 -- the planning and plotting is already well underway. In anticipation of further gridlock and obstruction in Congress over the next four years, President Obama has begun to marshal his base, and has turned his Obama For America campaign apparatus into Organizing For Action. The organizer-in-chief wants an activist organization that will press Congress to act on his agenda. Mr. Obama understands fully that the GOP will try to thwart any of his plans for real change, and he will need significant help from the outside to break the gridlock. His supporters will have to turn their campaigning skills and energy toward supporting good policy and combating right-wing politics and noise.

This new organization is heading in a direction that raises questions, however, which Huffington Post writer Paul Blumenthal discussed in his post on Jan. 24 entitled "Organizing For Action Praised By Super Pacs, Derided By Reformers." Money from corporations and lobbyists will be allowed to fund O.F.A. under its 501(c)(4) status, which will once again open the floodgates to conflicts of interest and shady money. The president must instead turn his 10 million-plus former campaign supporters into activists invested in change by using the same low-dollar donation model that was so successful in his 2008 campaign to secure its funding, which would show our nation that People power can truly change and shape our politics.

Jim Messina, Obama's former campaign manager, will chair O.F.A., and he should hire some new faces to run the new organization and make a clear policy that funding will come only from individual supporters, and that shady special interest money is not welcome, for it would only continue to pollute our government and democracy. I hope O.F.A. will network with other outside advocacy organizations to move Congress to act on important issues (as well as increasing the numbers of Democrats in both the House and Senate). A powerful force of millions taking back our country could very well lead to our own American Spring.

Another concern is that if O.F.A. is run by former campaign operatives and White House staff with connections to the President, will it have the independence to develop strategies from within the organization's membership and give merit to the voice and opinions of the people? What if the organization's membership disagrees with the president's position or policy on an issue? Or wants to reverse some of those lingering Bush policies? A prime example is the president's position on climate change and energy. Mr. Obama supports clean energy such as solar and wind power, but he also strongly supports the Keystone XL pipeline and fracking, which much of the country opposes. A people-funded and people-driven approach for O.F.A. could really change how Washington works, and create a template for action on a national scale. Funding O.F.A. by corporations and lobbyists, on the other hand, will be diving into the same old can of worms and will change nothing.

An effective template exists for O.F.A. in the Progressive Democrats of America a nonprofit advocacy organization under the guidance of Tim Carpenter that has been in existence for eight years and works with five progressive members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, who are also on the P.D.A. board of directors. This is the original outside-inside model working to build the Progressive movement -- 38 states now have P.D.A. chapters. Their strategy includes meeting with members of Congress on Capitol Hill, brown bag lunch vigils at the Congress members' district offices, street demonstrations and letter drops. Two days before this year's inauguration, P.D.A. launched its third annual Progressive Central gathering in D.C. to lay out its strategy going forward, with discussions in panels that addressed and offered solutions on key issues such as healthcare for all through a single payer system, as set forth in H.R. 676, the United States National Health Care Act (expanded and improved Medicare for all); combating global warming and environmental issues; clean, fair and transparent elections; economic and social justice; the end of wars and occupations in the Middle East and Afghanistan; and redirecting funding from military programs to public programs. I also recommend they rev up their work supporting an amendment to overturn Citizens United.

A slew of progressive luminaries spoke at the event, including Jim Hightower, former Commissioner of Agriculture in Texas; John Nichols of The Nation, Medea Benjamin of Code Pink; Lori Wallach of Global Trade Watch; Co-chair of the C.P.C. Raul Grijalva; Rep. John Conyers; Rep. Alan Grayson; Tom Hayden (long remembered for rocking the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968 with his massive demonstration against our involvement in Vietnam) and others. To add to the excitement, the C.P.C., with its activist organization the Progressive Congress, is building and expanding its strategy from the inside out to engage with and build support from progressive activists and organizations to affect Congress and to increase the numbers of progressives in Congress, while also building the progressive movement. Those 76 C.P.C House members could be a powerful force to counteract intransigent GOP members, and joined with Progressive Congressional activists, they could finally put true progressive policy proposals back on the front burner and pressure Speaker Boehner to act on them. As the largest caucus in Congress, they could have a great effect on votes in the House if they unite on issues as a unified block.

Can P.D.A., the C.P.C. and O.F.A. work together to build a larger coalition? Will Jim Messina reach out to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party? Hey, the president offered a progressive agenda, Jim. Why not?

Co-authored with Jonathan Stone