It was a blisteringly cold day in early February of 2008, and Sen.
It was a blisteringly cold day in early February of 2008, and Sen. Barack Obama was ready to rally some 18,000 people on the campus of the University of Maryland. The “Potomac Primary” was looming and despite the weather, an enormous line of supporters wrapped around the outside of the Comcast Center waiting to file in. The Obama campaign’s organizing prowess had just netted the candidate a lead in the all-important “pledged delegate” count after sweeping through the caucus states on Super Tuesday. The grassroots marvel that was the Obama operation was on a roll, and a sweep of the primaries in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. would put Obama in the delegate lead for good over presidential rival Hillary Clinton. More than a year and a half later, Barack Obama was back at UMD, this time rallying supporters in the hopes of keeping his floundering effort to reform the nation’s healthcare system alive. This rally’s environment was markedly different. Unlike the previous February, the president spoke to an arena with a few hundred empty red seats. “This is the hard part,” President Obama told the assembled crowd. “This is when the special interests gear up and fight back with everything they’ve got.” The White House had just endured a brutal summer, which saw a steady decline in the president’s approval numbers and angry townhall protesters dominating television news coverage. But in his appeal to the crowd, the president wasn’t able to say more than, “I need you.” There was no Election Day looming and no voters to register. His supporters didn’t greet him with any less enthusiasm then they did last year, but it’s hard to believe they left with the same sense of purpose. The difference between candidate Obama’s rally and President Obama’s underlies the challenge faced by Organizing for America, the Obama grassroots operation that now runs as an arm of the Democratic National Committee. “It really is apples and oranges,” says Jeremy Bird, Organizing for America’s deputy director. “Too often the media looks at them as the same thing, and thinks that what happened on November 3, should happen now too. That just isn’t the case.” The Obama campaign might have registered a record number of new voters, built an enormous list of supporters and raised previously unheard of amounts of money in 2008, but transferring that level of energy and success to the debate over healthcare reform faces any number of tactical obstacles. “I definitely thought that if anybody could turn what was created in the campaign into something long-term and sustained, it would have been OFA,” says Phillip Stutts, a Republican consultant who directed the 72-hour GOTV program for George W. Bush’s reelection campaign in 2004. “But what we’re seeing play out is that a lot of their supporters are disengaged.” Adds Stutts, who now heads his own firm, Phillip Stutts and Company, “I’m not sure [OFA] has adequately communicated the idea it wants to get across—the cause goes on.” OFA has been working to drum up support for healthcare since the beginning of June, the entirety of that time, though, without a specific piece of legislation the White House officially supports. So far in 2009, the healthcare opposition has been louder and has succeeded in throwing a major wrench in the president’s efforts. “The opposition has organized really effectively throughout this whole debate,” says Josh Ginsberg, vice president of Mercury Public Affairs. Ginsberg was Mitt Romney’s national field director in 2008. “That’s a big part of the whole healthcare story, and I think one that’s surprised a lot of people.” While some of the basic principles remain the same, grassroots organizing around a policy issue calls for a more creative approach. Absent an end date, like Election Day, to direct energy and resources toward, keeping people’s focus and attention can prove tough. “On a [candidate] campaign, the goal is very clear,” says Bird who has worked as an organizer for Obama since 2007. “On an issue campaign, it’s always a bit more of a challenge.” And while some of the metrics are the same as on a campaign, progress is generally measured in ways that are more nebulous. “How many people are turning out for events? How many volunteers do we have? How much earned media are we getting? How many people are calling Congressional offices? Every month we have a set of priorities,” he says. As for whether it has made a dent in the debate, Bird claims plenty of progress towards the president’s goal of reform. OFA won’t release its total number of volunteers, but says it has a presence on the ground in 47 states. Bird also sites a five-day program launched in August that saw some 65,000 volunteers visit the offices of their member of Congress. In all, OFA says 1.7 million people have “taken action” on healthcare since the beginning of June and the organization has hosted some 14,000 local events. But since OFA has ramped up its organizing efforts, support for the president’s reform plan has actually declined. As lawmakers spin their legislative wheels in Congress, organizers are admittedly forced to focus on “broad principles for reform,” as opposed to a specific bill with a firm legislative timeline. And the opposition to the president’s plan has a much simpler message: Just say no. Still, OFA has its share of defenders. Craig Schirmer, who directed GOTV on Obama’s South Carolina primary campaign, and was the state director for both the Wisconsin and North Carolina primaries, says there’s no doubt grassroots success can transfer to the healthcare battle. “Grassroots movements take time to build and evolve,” says Schirmer, now a partner at the Democratic firm New Partners. OFA “has a disciplined and smart team. They’ll find ways to use some of the lessons we learned on the campaign.” Says one Democratic organizer, who asked not to be identified, “OFA is clearly going through a period of building a foundation, and with that comes some growing pains.” One area the group has fallen short, the organizer says, is in finding effective ways to pressure individual members of the House and the Senate, including a number of wavering Democrats. That’s a potentially delicate task given that OFA is part of the DNC. The group’s leadership is still brimming with confidence, though. Bird says OFA gets the differences between candidate campaigns and issue-based ones—he’s just not so sure everyone else does. “It doesn’t mean we won’t make this happen, though,” says Bird.Shane D’Aprile is the senior editor of Politics magazine.