02/27/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

What Next, Obama Volunteers?

In a widely-seen YouTube clip, Obama appealed to his election campaign volunteers to join a new organization, Organizing for America (OFA). He called the organization that got him elected "the largest grassroots movement in history" and said of his agenda as president, "We can not do this without you..."

Last night, in an interview that you can hear here, I asked author Randy Shaw if this had ever been done before, and if it possibly could be done: can an elected politician start a mass grassroots movement? Can it work to promote major change?

Shaw's article "After the Victory: Engaging Obama Volunteers" in Tikkun's election issue drew on his study of the way Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers engaged a generation of young radicals to turn their ideals into effective political achievement in the 1960s and 70s. Though the UFW effort eventually petered out, the radicals it had trained spread out through many organizations and have maintained a lifelong activism. In this ability to engage volunteers the UFW was unequalled. What can Obama's people learn from it?

Shaw says the main problem so far is that Obama campaign manager David Plouffe says the new Organizing for America volunteers will not be allowed to pressure elected Democrats. If Plouffe holds to that, how much use can OFA be? Democrats will be running Congress and many state legislatures as well as the White House and governships, and this grassroots activist movement will not be permitted to pressure them? What happens, asks Shaw, after you have had the town meetings on the Obama health proposals, for example, and you have rallied crowds and got their energy up, and your Democratic Representative is still not going for a strong plan. You're not allowed to lobby her office, demonstrate in the street outside, deluge her with emails, blog your heart out? Obama is on record as ideally preferring a single payer health plan, but opting for the mish-mash he promoted on the campaign trail because single payer was not yet politically feasible. So what if the nationwide movement currently building for single payer changes the political climate and makes it appear more feasible? Where will the Organizing for America volunteers stand? Once they are fired up, can Plouffe rein them in? Will he even want to, or were his words just what he had to say to appease Democratic lawmakers? Would Obama welcome a huge movement on his left pressuring him to the progressive side, so that he can compromise between them and the right? After all, it is the extremes that define the center. The center moved dramatically to the right in the last 40 years, not least because the extreme right made even the old centrist Republicans look left. Obama can be a centrist while moving the center back towards the left, if he has a large enough movement further out to his left.

Shaw expects that the left organizations will provide that role as best they can. But he says most Obama volunteers are not going to suddenly join radical organizations, they need to be rallied by the people who led them in the campaign. In his article, Shaw argued for an independent organization to do that. On the call last night he was reluctant to condemn OFA before it's out the gate, reluctant to say it can't be run by the Democratic Party, though he holds firm in saying it has to be able to lobby and pressure Democrats in office. That sounds contradictory. The Obama volunteers are either going to be a chorus for the Democratic party whatever it does, or they are going to pressure it to live up to the global warming, civil liberties, healthcare and other visions that attracted them to Obama's campaign in the first place.