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Obama Enlists Campaign Army In Budget Fight

By Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 16, 2009

President Obama will kick off an all-out grass-roots effort today urging Congress to pass his $3.55 trillion budget, activating the extensive campaign apparatus he built during his successful 2008 candidacy for the first time since taking office.

The campaign, which will be run under the aegis of the Democratic National Committee, will rely heavily on the 13 million-strong e-mail list put together during the campaign and now under the control of Organizing for America (OFA), a group overseen by the DNC. Aides familiar with the plan said it is an unprecedented attempt to transfer the grass-roots energy built during the presidential campaign into an effort to sway Congress.

David Plouffe, who was Obama's campaign manager and is now an adviser to OFA, called this effort the "first major engagement" of the group in the legislative process and said in a statement that it will call on supporters "to help the President win the debate between those who marched in lockstep with the failed Bush economic policies and now have no new ideas versus the Obama agenda which will help us manage the short term economic crisis and puts us on the path to long term prosperity."

Plouffe, who passed up a formal role in the White House but remains a conduit to the army of Obama volunteers, sent an e-mail to the OFA mailing list over the weekend signaling the ramping up of the campaign for the president's budget. "In the next few weeks we'll be asking you to do some of the same things we asked of you during the campaign -- talking directly to people in your communities about the President's ideas for long-term prosperity," he wrote.

That push begins today with an e-mail asking volunteers to go door to door Saturday to urge their neighbors to sign a pledge in support of Obama's budget plan.

A new online tool, to be unveiled this week on the DNC/OFA Web site, will help constituents find their congressional representatives' contact information so they can call the lawmakers' offices to voice approval of the proposal. A midweek follow-up message to the mailing list will ask volunteers to call the Hill -- the first time the OFA e-mail database has been used to urge direct contact with Congress in support of legislation.

"Members are going to be surrounded by this, and this is going to carry on for the next several weeks on this budget fight," said one source familiar with the strategy.

Several people closely involved in this campaign's planning made it clear that they believe this is the moment Democrats have been waiting for since Obama's election -- the deployment of the volunteer army that helped catapult a freshman senator to the presidency.

When Obama announced the formation of Organizing for America via YouTube in January, he said the group "will build on the movement you started during the campaign" and added: "That's why I am asking people like you who fought for change during the campaign to continue fighting for change in your communities."

Obama's closest aides have been plotting for months when to make the move. Bringing Organizing for America under the umbrella of the DNC and installing a group of Obama loyalists -- including Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine as chairman and Jen O'Malley Dillon, a highly regarded campaign operative, as executive director -- were aimed at re-creating the disciplined organization of the campaign.

"This is exactly the scenario OFA was moved into the DNC for, to take on the toughest tasks, the most transformational moments," said one party source. "Remember, everything Obama wants to accomplish from a substantive perspective requires him to pass this budget as a down payment and to draw lines in the sand."

Passing Obama's budget will not be an easy task. Republicans have lined up in near-unanimous resistance, and even some Democrats have voiced concerns about the huge deficit -- $1.75 trillion for this fiscal year -- and the spending priorities outlined in the proposal.

During an appearance yesterday on ABC's "This Week," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Obama's plan "taxes too much, it spends too much, it borrows too much."

Obama is getting help in the budget fight from liberal interest groups, led by Americans United for Change. The group launched a television ad Sunday, titled "Crickets," that highlights the Republican opposition to Obama's budget proposal and says that GOP leaders have no new ideas to offer. "Tell the Republicans that Americans won't take no for an answer," the narrator says in the ad. "Tell them we want our president -- and America -- to succeed."

It remains to be seen, however, whether the millions who volunteered for and donated to Obama's presidential campaign will bring that same energy and dedication to bear on the far more mundane task of trying to force a budget through Congress. Volunteering to help turn out the vote in a battleground state is one thing; knocking on doors to seek pledges of support for a budget proposal is entirely different.

"It is harder to inspire action on policy issues than it is in a campaign," said Terry Nelson, a senior GOP official who managed part of Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign in 2007. "Generally, fewer people are responsive to the appeals, and the environment that the appeal takes place in is different than an election, where volunteers are actually advocating to fellow citizens who also have a vote. In legislative advocacy, the actions are not as connected to the legislative outcome."

The Organizing for America team has held several dry runs to test the efficacy of their volunteer apparatus, including a call for supporters to hold "economic recovery house meetings" last month to highlight challenges presented by the recession. The house parties were designed to coincide with the congressional debate over Obama's $787 billion stimulus package, which passed with near-unanimous Democratic support and just three Republican votes.

That OFA push had mixed results. Although the Obama team touted the 30,000 responses the e-mail drew from the volunteer community and the more than 3,000 house parties thrown in support of the stimulus package, a report in McClatchy Newspapers indicated that several events were sparsely attended.

"There is no better asset in politics today," Republican strategist Alex Vogel said of Organizing for America's e-mail database. "If mail lists made Karl Rove, e-mail and cell lists made Obama," he said, referring to the former White House deputy chief of staff. "But what good is a list if your message is bad?"

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