Obama's Vast Grass-Roots Network

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, November 21, 2008

While the nation's capital obsesses over Barack Obama's next Cabinet pick, the president-elect's lieutenants are engaged with what may be a more important long-term issue: What will become of Obama's vast grass-roots network?

Electoral campaigns, like circus tents, quickly disappear after the show is over. But Obama is our first community-organizer president, and he sees the way he got elected as being almost as crucial as the fact that he won. Because of the emphasis he put on organizing, barackobama.com might fairly be seen as the most successful high-tech startup of the past two years.

Over and over, Obama has spoken of change coming from "the bottom up," and the organization he built down to the precinct and neighborhood level could be an agent of that change. But how?

The discussion among Obama's lieutenants focuses on several alternatives. In one view, the Obama apparatus could be integrated into the Democratic Party and be run through the Democratic National Committee. Many of Obama's top aides, including campaign manager David Plouffe, are veterans of traditional Democratic politics.

Turning the Obama network into a vast national party organization could give Democrats durable advantages that the party has not enjoyed since the New Deal era, when Franklin Roosevelt built an alliance between local political machines and a growing labor movement.

But Plouffe himself has been much affected by the new way of campaigning he oversaw. His regular video reports to the troops turned him into something of a hero to the Obama faithful.

Moreover, Steve Hildebrand, Obama's deputy campaign manager, has argued that members of the network include many who are averse to traditional party politics: young people with weak party loyalties, independents and even some Republicans. He has been suggesting at Democratic gatherings that the Obama apparatus might instead constitute itself as an independent political organization -- friendly and parallel to the Democratic Party but a separate entity nonetheless. Obama supporters are also discussing how local networks could integrate into their communities through various forms of service work and activism. Obama's Web site is raising money for the victims of the Southern California fires.

The importance of cultivating the network and keeping it intact was underscored by an online survey that Plouffe sent to supporters on Tuesday. The survey explicitly asked: "How would you like to see this organization move forward in the months and years ahead?"

Offering a clue as to what Obama insiders are thinking, the survey asked supporters to rank four objectives: helping the new administration "pass legislation through grass-roots efforts"; helping elect state and local candidates "who share the same vision for our country"; training others in the organizing techniques perfected by the campaign; and "working on local issues that impact our communities."

Notably absent from that list was the word "Democrat."

Yet there is only so much distance that Obama either can or wants to keep from his party. He is, in important ways, a loyal Chicago organization Democrat. Plouffe is currently using the Obama fundraising network to help the Democratic National Committee erase its deficit.

Obama supporters have been moving into Georgia to help Democrat Jim Martin in his Dec. 2 runoff election against incumbent Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss. Yet Obama himself has yet to make clear how forcefully he'll intervene in a state that he lost. A Martin victory would signal the depth of the nation's desire for change, but a new president-elect with soaring popularity may not want to subject himself to such an early test on not-entirely-hospitable terrain.

One Democratic strategist said that parts of the Obama organization are still mistrustful of the national committee, seeing it as a redoubt for Hillary and Bill Clinton loyalists. But this view is waning, since Obama, as the party's undisputed leader, will inevitably take over the party apparatus, and he is making peace with the Clintons, notably by suggesting he may want Sen. Clinton as his secretary of state.

The urgency of the organizational discussion signals that Obama's lieutenants see the 2008 campaign as having fundamentally altered the contours of American politics.

Democrats believe (and many Republicans fear) that Obama allowed his party and its allies to take an enormous leap forward in both technological sophistication and grass-roots activism. Preserving those gains and building on them is a priority for a man who sees organizing not only as instrumental but also as a way of transforming democracy itself.


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