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Obama's Grass-Roots 'Organizing for America' Isn't a Factor in Budget Battle

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By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 6, 2009

When his post-campaign organization was unveiled in January, Barack Obama vowed that the 13 million-strong grass-roots network built during his presidential campaign would play a "crucial role" in enacting his agenda from the White House.

"The change we've worked so hard for will not happen unless ordinary Americans get involved, and supporters like you must lead the way," Obama told backers just before his inauguration.

But in its first big test, the group dubbed Organizing for America (OFA) had little obvious impact on the debate over President Obama's budget, which passed Congress on Thursday with no Republican support and a splintering of votes among conservative Democrats. The capstone of the campaign was the delivery of 214,000 signatures to Capitol Hill, which swayed few, if any, members of Congress, according to legislative aides from both parties.

The episode underscores the difficulty that Obama and his supporters face in attempting to transfer the excitement of a historic presidential campaign to the mundane and complex process of pushing legislation through Congress. It also comes as something of a relief to beleaguered Republicans, who cast the relatively humble pledge campaign as a sign of broader disaffection with Obama's economic priorities.

Thomas E. Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution, said the petition drive was "a pretty lame start to the effort, and largely inconsequential to the outcome," adding: "The fact is that the sort of hard politics of policymaking are still driven by partisanship, by public opinion polls, by the roles of interest groups and all the other things that have always mattered in Washington."

Natalie Wyeth, a spokeswoman for the OFA project at the Democratic National Committee, acknowledged that the effort was "a work in progress" but said the rapid gathering of tens of thousands of signatures in favor of Obama's budget hints at the group's powerful potential.

"This is just the first step in the process," Wyeth said. "We've been around 60-some-odd days. This is still a very new project, a new effort, and we're learning as we go."

The organization brought Obama's massive campaign e-mail and address list under the umbrella of the DNC, which is run by Obama's handpicked chairman, Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine. The president's 2008 campaign manager, David Plouffe, acts as an outside adviser to the project. The DNC did not make Plouffe available for comment last week.

DNC financial filings give little indication of the contours of OFA, since the project's expenditures are not separated from the committee's overall operations. The effort has had no discernible impact on DNC fundraising: Total receipts were $9.9 million in the first two months of 2009, including about $3 million transferred from the Obama presidential campaign, down from $10.3 million during the same period in 2007, according to Federal Election Commission records.

The grass-roots effort on behalf of Obama's $3.5 trillion budget began in early March and was described by Plouffe as the group's "first major engagement" in the legislative process. OFA organized a door-to-door canvass effort on March 21 that netted about 100,000 pledge signatures; another 114,000 signatures came in through the group's e-mail network, the group said.

OFA trumpeted the effort as resulting in more than 640,000 pledges. But that number comes from triple-counting -- the group made three copies of pledges, one each for the signer's House member and two senators.

"If today is any indication of the support, we're going to be in very, very good shape over the next couple years," OFA director Mitch Stewart declared on Wednesday as the pledges were being distributed.

Republicans scoffed at the effort, arguing that it showed that even most diehard Obama supporters were uncertain about the wisdom of the president's budget plan. Several GOP aides noted that the number of pledges gathered online amounted to fewer than 1 percent of the names on Obama's vaunted e-mail list.

"The phones rang off the hook this week, but the overwhelming majority of calls came from Kentuckians who agreed that this budget spends, taxes and borrows way too much," said John Ashbrook, a spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Although Obama did not attract any GOP support, he did manage to gain approval for his budget from most of the "Blue Dog Coalition," a group of about 50 conservative and moderate Democrats in the House who have posed a political challenge for the White House.

But Kristen Hawn, a press aide to Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.) who acts as a spokeswoman for the Blue Dogs, said the OFA campaign had little impact on lawmakers' decisions on how to vote. Instead, she said, Obama's promise to enact health-care reform on a deficit-neutral basis was the crucial factor in gaining support from 37 members of the fiscally conservative group.

"It was the policy issue, it was that specific commitment, that made a difference," she said, adding: "I'm not sure how many members knew about the petitions."

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