The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

If the Obama presidency is winding down, why is his group Organizing for Action ramping up?

(Tony Dejak/AP)

On June 30, Organizing for Action, a nonprofit group that grew out of Obama’s campaign machine, sent out a flurry of e-mails to potential donors announcing the impending conclusion of OFA’s fiscal quarter and requesting recipients chip in before midnight. These sorts of e-mails are standard little more than a year out from a general election, as we are now.

But Obama isn’t going to be on any ballots anytime soon. So each dollar that flows into OFA’s coffer is, presumably, a dollar not going to a candidate with battles yet to come. Why is there not more outcry against OFA from the Democratic National Committee (DNC), or congressional Democrats, or Hillary Clinton’s campaign? And why is OFA still pressing forward even as Obama’s presidency is winding down?

The answer says something about how Obama intends to influence the party in years to come. At a time when a good deal of partisan action takes place outside of regular party organizations, OFA works to mobilize support for progressive priorities in the face of continuing intense opposition. Beyond current struggles, the challenge for Organizing for Action will be to move beyond loyalty to Obama himself and find ways to deepen his political and policy legacies after he leaves the White House

Obama’s organization, 3.0

Organizing for Action is actually the third iteration of Obama’s grass-roots movement. First came Obama for America, the president’s vaunted information-age campaign organization. Next that was transformed into Organizing for America (OFA 2.0) which was inserted in the DNC, where it was tasked with several things: mobilizing support for Obama’s signature program, the Affordable Care Act; supporting Democratic midterm campaigns; and keeping alive — even strengthening— Obama’s grass-roots network and voter and contributor databases, to be ready for the president’s reelection campaign.

Some opponents of the merger had hoped to keep the organization separate so that it could remain an independent power base for the president. In a nod toward their concerns, OFA enjoyed “departmental” status within the DNC, retained control of its own e-mail list, and was managed by Obama campaign staffers rather than DNC personnel.

This third incarnation, Organizing for Action (or OFA 3.0), is especially pathbreaking. Although candidate-centered campaign organizations became a principal feature of the modern executive with John F. Kennedy’s 1960 run for the White House, Organizing for Action was spun off as a 501(c)(4) group, and dedicated to championing the “agenda Americans voted for in 2012.”

OFA 2.0’s activities – especially its efforts to mobilize support for “Obamacare” – had gone beyond campaigning. But as former party chairman, Sen. Tim Kaine (Va.) told us, OFA was primarily envisaged as “the grassroots arm of the DNC,” and it played an integral part in the national party’s expanded field operations in the states. Consequently, OFA’s objectives were closely tied to the 2010 midterms and, more emphatically, the president’s reelection.

In contrast, OFA 3.0, formed when the president was no longer going to be a candidate, has been explicitly dedicated to policy advocacy and implementation. Over the course of Obama’s second term, Organizing for Action has: played a critical part in enrolling the uninsured during the rollout of Obamacare; staged hundreds of rallies around the country in support of progressive causes; and continued to build and refine the gigantic e-mail lists and databases so essential to the president’s two electoral victories.

OFA’s ability to mobilize Obama’s supporters on behalf of policies has been one important reason that the president has been able to avoid lame duck status, and has instead continued to work on advancing substantive projects. OFA has helped to promote Obama’s policies, such as immigration reform, LGBT rights, and climate change policy through administrative action.

Taking up what the national parties can no longer do

If these tasks of mobilizing political support and advocating for policy sound like the DNC’s job, that’s because it is…or used to be. As Daniel Galvin has shown, since the consolidation of the modern executive office, presidents, especially Republicans, have relied on their party’s national committees to do much of the stage-setting needed to both win electoral battles and “win the peace” between contests.

But in 2002, the emergence of national committees as national political machines was short-circuited.

Although Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission is best remembered for striking down some campaign finance restrictions, perhaps as important are the portions of 2002’s Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) that the Supreme Court let stand. While fundraising restrictions on Political Action Committees and other forms of “independent” groups were eliminated, the BCRA’s new regulations on contributions to party committees were upheld. The most significant remaining regulation was the so-called soft money ban, which proscribed the national party organizations from raising unregulated funds.

What does that mean? Prior to the BCRA’s passage, campaign finance law distinguished between money raised for the purposes of “electioneering” on behalf of candidates for office (what was then called “hard money”) and dollars earmarked for all other purposes (referred to as “soft money”). Individual donors were –as now – restricted in the amount of hard money they could donate, but there was no cap on soft money donations before 2002. Since then, however, no distinction has been enforced between hard money and soft; all donations to political parties have been subject to the same limits.

These esoteric but very significant changes in the campaign finance laws have had an important impact on the relative power of formal party organizations and “independent” groups. Parties once exploited the soft money loophole, using the more permissively regulated dollars to run issue ads that stopped just short of bestowing explicit endorsements or calling out opposing politicians by name.

Moreover, as Ray La Raja’s research has shown, national committees also used soft money to engage in party-building activities that strengthened the chances of candidates up and down the ticket. These were vital services politicians had come to rely on.

But with their war chests limited to campaign activity, both the DNC and RNC now focus almost exclusively on strategic contributions to candidates locked in competitive elections.

Using “soft money” to advocate for policies and train organizers

That’s where Organizing for Action comes in. Unlike parties, in the post-Citizen’s United era, 501(c)(4) groups like OFA can accept unlimited contributions. And they can advocate for policies in ways unregulated by campaign finance laws. Although such groups must spend more than half of their funds toward “social welfare” (read: not overtly political) purposes to be eligible for tax-exempt status, enforcing this provision is daunting.

Just as parties once exploited the soft money loophole, 501(c)(4) groups like OFA can now take advantage of ambiguity over exactly what counts as a campaign-related expenditure.

In addition to advocating on issues and policies, OFA has taken on some of the campaign-related roles traditionally played by national party committees. In addition to maintaining and updating the databases and other digital assets that have been so critical to Obama’s campaign and policy successes, OFA has held numerous “community organizer workshops” and an annual Spring Fellows Program. Through these efforts, OFA mints new community organizers and trains a workforce for Democratic candidates and other progressive nonprofits.

Organizing for Action trained more than 10,000 organizers during its first two years, many of whom worked on the 2014 midterm elections and have joined 2016 presidential campaigns. These campaign and advocacy laboratories suggest how OFA – a pioneering presidential organization – might endure beyond 2016, seeking, as a recent organization e-mail trumpeted, to secure the “future of the Progressive movement.”

That’s why there’s so little concern that OFA’s fundraising might suck the oxygen out of 2016 Democratic campaigns: It is, instead, preparing to support those campaigns. Obama’s grass-roots organization has only raised a bit over $5 million during the first two quarters of 2015. Instead of drawing from big donors and releasing TV ads, OFA invests in on-the-ground volunteers, more so than any previous presidential organization and almost all 501(c)(4) groups.

“Obama’s family”

Most Democratic partisans understand that “Obama’s family,” as staff and volunteers refer to themselves, is not trying to siphon money from their campaigns, displace the party, or simply bolster Obama’s agenda. Rather, its messaging and grass-roots mobilization is taking up what the more constrained national party committees once did, and in doing so, might be providing a valuable service to all Democrats.

Indeed, former President Obama may well keep OFA intact after he leaves office. With its state of the art digital platform, 30 million e-mail addresses, 3 million donors and 2 million active participants, OFA 4.0 could continue to be a useful ally to progressive politicians and causes. In a fractious political environment where loose coalitions of interest groups, think tanks, PACs, and wealthy mega-donors have filled the vacuum left by atrophying national parties, the broadly focused OFA could perhaps provide some much-needed coordination and direction just as party bosses once did.

If this is OFA’s future, President Obama, with the help of his “family,” could remain a central player in American politics for years to come. This prospect will undoubtedly send Republicans into fits. The prospect of this president with his loyal following, charisma, and rhetorical flourish, staying on stage after his curtain call likely does not thrill Hillary Clinton either.

Sidney M. Milkis is White Burkett Miller Professor in the department of politics at the University of Virginia. John W. York is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of politics at the University of Virginia.