“We must act,” President Obama declared in his inaugural address. A critical part of his strategy is harnessing the energy and enthusiasm of his campaign supporters to promote his legislative agenda.
Second terms are often marked by disappointment and frustration, as presidential vigor is sapped by the effects of the lame-duck flu. (There’s no vaccine against it.) And Obama has a special problem: a House of Representatives dominated by hard-core conservative Republicans who have declared holy war against the president.
But the White House aims to marginalize those opponents by generating public support for Obama’s proposals and forcing lawmakers to respond to their constituents. The president was speaking about gun laws — but could have been addressing his entire legislative agenda — when he said recently: “I tell you, the only way we can change is if the American people demand it.” Obama’s close adviser Robert Gibbs framed the strategy this way on MSNBC: “The president has the most exciting campaign apparatus ever built. It’s time to turn that loose.”
Team Obama has taken that apparatus, with its huge database and network of volunteers, and created a new entity, Organizing for Action. It’s established under the same section of the tax code that Republicans used to raise vast sums of corporate money during the last campaign. Since Democrats denounced that whole concept, there’s a whiff of hypocrisy here. But all smart politicians copy their opponents’ best ideas, and Gibbs is right that Obama’s campaign organization was a critical part of his victory. So keeping it alive is a shrewd move.
That campaign was inspired by Facebook and is based on the same essential insight: People hunger for relationships, for connections, for a sense of belonging and purpose. Facebook enables you to “like” or “friend” someone or something, to post a photo, to send a message or to join a group, and the Obama campaign did exactly the same thing. Volunteers could submit ideas, hold meetings, canvass neighbors, transmit videos, donate money.
That process of participation changed the way supporters thought of themselves and their role in politics. They were transformed from a passive to an active mode. They acquired a vital stake in the election’s outcome, and that’s what Team Obama is trying to duplicate. They want supporters to take an ownership share in the president’s legislative agenda.
This new initiative has already started. On Inauguration Day, the president sent the following email to his vast list of volunteers: “I just renewed my oath of office to serve as your president for four more years. Thank you for making this possible. It’s an honor to be your president. Now it’s time to finish what we started — let’s get going. Barack.” He added: “P.S. — Organizing for Action is the next step in our grass-roots movement and will be crucial to finishing what we started.”
Then there was a boldface link to sign up. That’s pure Facebook — encourage relationships and make them possible.
A lot of obstacles stand in the president’s path. Elections present a stark choice, and it’s easy to make the case for a candidate or a party. Legislation often involves messy compromises that are far murkier and more difficult to sell. One obvious example: Any far-reaching deal to reduce the budget deficit will inevitably include cuts in entitlement programs, a very large pill for liberals to swallow.
Elections also take place on a set schedule, and campaigns can be organized far in advance to point toward one decisive moment. Legislative battles have many turning points, and it’s hard to know when to maximize the impact of your troops.
Moreover, many House Republicans represent safe districts and are largely immune from the pressures of public opinion. The president can unleash his campaign apparatus all he wants, but will it matter to those GOP lawmakers, especially when conservative activists threaten to challenge them in the primaries if they stray from ideological orthodoxy?
Still, as the president made clear in his inaugural address, he is committed to pushing a range of issues — gun control, immigration, climate change, budget deficits. He knows his window is limited. “You hope for a year and a half,” Gibbs told The New York Times. “You understand it could be half that.”
But Obama’s best chance for success rests on a clear calculation: The folks who helped re-elect him will now work just as hard to support his goal of “finishing what we started.”