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.
"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."
Not every volunteer had the same success. In Reston, one voter paused to tell public school teacher Pat Hynes that Obama is "way out of his league" and that the canvassing project was "a waste of our time and our attention spans."
Obama is presiding over "the largest con game I have ever seen or heard of in my life," said the man, a retired federal agent who declined to give his name. "There's a difference between campaigning and governing. . . . We're looking for leadership. That's not leadership."
Preparing for the long haul, an OFA executive said volunteers will continue to gather pledges through the Internet, phone banks and shoe leather, and deliver them to members of Congress as a budget vote draws near.
One hope is that local media will expand the message's reach by reporting on the canvassing drives. To spread the word, former campaign manager David Plouffe and OFA Director Mitch Stewart e-mailed 13 million people on the 2008 campaign list and asked for help.
Web links invited readers to call their senators and representatives to voice support for the budget, providing lawmakers' names and phone numbers, and a script to follow. Other tools allowed people to e-mail the appeal to friends and families or post it on Facebook.
Yet the organization remains skeletal, and the Pledge Project does not nearly cover the 435 congressional districts. The organization aims to develop a structure -- including at least one paid staffer in each state -- in time for larger fights over health-care, climate change and education legislation.
"This is all being driven by volunteers. It's an extremely exhilarating process, but also nerve-racking," an Obama veteran said. "We have a very, very scaled-down staff as of right now."
Randall Stagner staged an event Saturday in his home in Raleigh, N.C. For the former campaign volunteer, it started with a call from Organizing for America. He tapped into the 2008 Obama Web site and sent an e-mail in hopes of rustling up some interest.
He received 300 replies.
"I was overwhelmed. There was a lot of pent-up desire to go and do things," said Stagner, 49, a retired Army special operations colonel. He identified 10 people across the state willing to organize a canvass. In all, he expects 30 events.
Stagner has been practicing his own pitch: "You tell people specifically what the president is doing and encourage them to reach out to their senators and representatives and tell them, 'No kidding, we voted for change, and that includes you.' "
Mary Alice Williams had an Obama network to draw upon in Grand Rapids, Mich., when she got Stewart's mass e-mail last weekend. That day, more than 30 former campaign volunteers had marched behind an Obama banner in a local St. Patrick's Day parade.
Volunteers who bonded during the campaign -- turning Kent County Democratic for the first time since 1968 -- have stayed in touch, and some have continued to meet.
"After the election, there was this 'What now?' letdown," said Williams, 66, who took to heart the Obama campaign message that the election was not an end in itself. She liked the idea of building a movement that would do more than elect candidates to office.
"This isn't just that we drank the Kool-Aid and it's one more chance to demonstrate our loyalty," Williams said. "I'm inspired by the civic engagement aspect of it: ordinary people whose only stake in this is to create a better community and a better America.
"As corny as that sounds, that's what most of us really believe."
She is optimistic, even in Michigan, home to the nation's highest unemployment rate -- 11.6 percent.
"Hard times are the best times to organize," Williams said. "When times are good, people are in their bubble."
In Reston, Jayne Byrnes worked a familiar stretch of sidewalk where she registered more than 600 voters during 15 Sundays last year. She calls it her "perch."
"Hi, I know you," she called out to Dhruv Sharma, walking by with his friend Yogesh Sharma. "Today's a national day of celebration and support for the president going forward. . . . How'd you like to sign a pledge?"
Byrnes had met the men in the summer and registered Yogesh Sharma, who had recently become a U.S. citizen. She said that she did not feel as comfortable with the economic pitch as she did when registering voters, but that she is eager to build a local OFA branch.
Both men signed, as did a steady stream of others, who also gave their postal and e-mail addresses. Yogesh Sharma, a software engineer, said, "If I have a mission in front of me and I'm part of a big plan from the president, I'd love to volunteer."
Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) watched volunteers in Evanston head out the door with their clipboards and saw a message in their willingness to act.
"It says the movement continues," said Schakowsky, an early Obama supporter. "The grass-roots organization still exists, and they're still needed to move this agenda."
Laris reported from Virginia. Staff writer Kari Lydersen in Chicago contributed to this report.