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Obama's Campaign Army on Road Again

Outside a Herndon supermarket, volunteer David McCracken persuades Dejene Dife to support President Obama's budget proposal. McCracken said he was surprised at how readily people signed cards pledging their support.
Outside a Herndon supermarket, volunteer David McCracken persuades Dejene Dife to support President Obama's budget proposal. McCracken said he was surprised at how readily people signed cards pledging their support. (By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)
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By Peter Slevin and Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, March 22, 2009

EVANSTON, Ill., March 21 -- As she headed into the morning sunshine to talk up President Obama's $3.6 trillion budget proposal, Althea Thomas counted herself a citizen and a partisan picking up where she left off Nov. 4, backing the president she helped elect.

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"It's the change we all voted on," said Thomas, one of about 40 volunteers who fanned out from the Democratic Party headquarters here with clipboards, pledge cards and a sense of mission that flowed from their support of Obama when he was a candidate.

The Obama administration and the Democratic National Committee opened a new chapter Saturday in their ambitious project to convert the energy from last year's campaign into a force for legislative reform on health care, climate change, education and taxes.

More than 1,200 groups from Maine to Hawaii spent the day gathering signatures in support of Obama's economic plan, the first step in building what the White House hopes will be a standing political army ready to do battle.

Seeking to create a grass-roots force on a scale never seen before, Obama called the volunteers into action in a video message reminiscent of the 2008 contest. In defense of his budget, under attack from many quarters, he asked his supporters to go "block by block and door by door."

In his Saturday radio address, Obama called his budget "an economic blueprint for our future." He said, "I didn't come here to pass on our problems to the next president or the next generation. I came here to solve them."

The idea of deploying a grass-roots army for legislative purposes is untested. Unlike a political campaign, where ballots are simple, if blunt, instruments that produce winners and losers on a fixed date, a policy campaign is amorphous.

"If successful, it would have revolutionary implications for American politics," said Ross K. Baker, a Rutgers University political science professor who counts himself among skeptics. "You can generate an enormous amount of support for an individual personality. It's much harder to do that for a piece of legislation."

Chicago neighborhood organizer Raul Botello acknowledged the successes of Obama's organization, but he questions the skills and the staying power of volunteers loosely affiliated with the new Organizing for America (OFA), which operates out of the DNC's headquarters.

"It's pretty clear how much harder organizing is to do than straight advocacy," said Botello, a youth organizer for the Albany Park Neighborhood Council. "It takes a long time, being more methodical -- and understanding there will be challenges along the way that are going to impede your attempts."

In the Washington area, David McCracken, a retired teacher, said he was surprised at how readily people signed pledge cards outside a Herndon supermarket. Within 15 minutes, four people had signed, and he was soon on his way to make more copies, humming a line from the '60s musical "Hair."

"This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius; that's about this whole process," McCracken said. "I feel like we're finally getting somewhere."


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