January 18, 2013

After the 2008 election, Democrats tried to translate the grassroots energy of the Obama campaign into something more durable. The result, Organizing for America, wasn’t much of a success. By and large, it existed on the periphery as President Obama played the inside game on the stimulus, health care, and financial reform. And because it was confined within the Democratic National Committee, it lacked the necessary autonomy.

It’s hard to know how much that mattered; on one hand, conservative Republicans in Congress weren’t going to bend to grassroots organizing, especially if it had Obama’s face on it. On the other, a stronger, more independent OFA wouldn’t have hurt, and might have even mitigated some of the political fallout from stimulus and health care reform.

Team Obama seems to have had the same conversation amongst themselves, and have fallen on the side of repeating the experiment, with far more emphasis on independence than before. To wit, Politico reports that the Obama campaign will relaunch as a tax-exempt nonprofit, separate from the DNC, with Jim Messina, Obama’s 2012 campaign manager, as chair of the organization. The group will be organized as a 501(c) 4, and as such, will be able to collect unlimited funds without having to disclose donors, further maximizing its independence. It will be called “Organizing For Action.”

Messina explained the group’s purpose in a statement this morning. “We’ll work on the key battles of our generation, train the next generation of grassroots organizers and leaders, and organize around local issues in our own communities,” he wrote. “We’ll continue to support the President in creating jobs and growing the economy from the middle out, and in fighting for issues like immigration reform, climate change, balanced deficit reduction, and reducing gun violence.”

Again, it’s hard to say if grassroots action will be effective in pushing Congress to move on the president’s agenda. But given the huge infrastructure developed by the Obama campaign — including millions of email addresses and volunteers “tagged by geography and degree of devotion,” as Politico puts it — there’s no excuse for not putting it to further use.

The new OFA could, however, have an impact on Obama’s agenda  in another way. The central political problem faced by Democrats is this: How to make the midterm electorate look like the presidential one, rather than the older and whiter electorate of, say, 2010? A large, well-funded grassroots organization, devoted to persuasion and activism, could become the key tool to reactivating 2012 voters, and bringing them to the polls in 2014.

If the primary obstacle to Obama’s policies on guns, immigration, climate change, economic stimulus, taxes and other issues remains GOP control of the House, the organization could conceivably aid in the 2014 push to recapture the Lower Chamber. While that’s a long shot, an effective OFA could conceivably make it somewhat less of a long shot.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect, where he writes a blog.