The Washington Post

Obama asks Organizing for Action to help him pass his policy agenda

President Obama, alongside former campaign manager Jim Messina, listens to a question from the audience at the Organizing for Action dinner. “We’re not done with the work that led me to run,” the president told the gathering of supporters. (YURI GRIPAS/REUTERS)

President Obama on Wednesday night pleaded with some of his most enthusiastic campaign backers to mobilize support for his domestic policy agenda, telling them, “I actually want to govern.”

The entreaty came in Obama’s first address to Organizing for Action, the nonprofit group formed from his reelection campaign, as it kicked off a two-day summit to chart its future. The president said the group will work not to elect political candidates but instead to help pass his policy priorities.

“It’s not about 2014,” Obama said, referencing next year’s congressional midterm elections. “I actually want to govern, at least for a couple of years.”

He added, “If a senator or congressman from a swing district is about to take a tough vote on immigration or guns, they need to feel supported.”

Obama’s dinner address to about 75 supporters — just hours after he met privately on Capitol Hill with the House Republican caucus — lacked the combative tone of the campaign-style speeches he delivered earlier this year, when he traveled the country trying to apply pressure on reluctant lawmakers to back his proposals on immigration, guns and fiscal policies.

On Wednesday night, Obama spoke of a bipartisan commitment, at least in the Senate, to overhauling immigration laws. And he brought up his recent charm offensive with GOP lawmakers, saying he is trying to include rank-and-file legislators in his discussions, not just the congressional leadership.

“All I’ve been doing is calling up folks and trying to see if we can break through some of the gobbledygook of our politics here,” Obama said.

Organizing for Action (OFA) is holding a two-day summit at the St. Regis, an upscale hotel two blocks from the White House. Many of the Democratic Party’s biggest benefactors did not attend, although Google Chairman Eric Schmidt was there. Other participants were mostly volunteers and former White House and campaign staffers.

OFA has been criticized in recent weeks because it is being funded with unlimited donations from wealthy individuals and because the biggest donors will have access to the president. Democracy 21, a watchdog group, wrote a letter to Obama on Wednesday accusing him of indirectly soliciting funds for OFA by appearing at the dinner.

“Organizing for Action is a mistake by President Obama that he should correct,” said Fred Wertheimer, the watchdog group’s president.

But OFA’s leaders said the organization should be celebrated because it aims to mobilize grass-roots supporters to fight the status quo in Washington and help pass the president’s domestic agenda.

“I suppose we all could sit back and relax after the campaign and say we got him reelected, but it’s not ‘Yes, he can,’ it’s ‘Yes, we can,’ ” Jim Messina, Obama’s 2012 campaign manager and an OFA founder, said during the opening session.

Messina said OFA plans to make quarterly public disclosures of every donor who gives more than $250. He also said the group will not accept contributions from corporations, federal lobbyists or foreign donors.

Leaders said OFA will tap the Obama campaign’s vast e-mail list and social media presence to help advance the president’s domestic policy agenda as well as state and local issues of importance to his supporters. They cited Medicaid reform in Tennessee as one example.

Since OFA’s founding in January, more than 1.1 million people have taken at least one volunteer action for the group, from engaging on Twitter to organizing events in their congressional districts, Messina said.

OFA’s leaders sought to root the group in the president’s legacy. “We’re a family,” longtime Obama adviser David Plouffe said. “It’s been about one man, one leader and millions of Americans by his side.”

Obama told his supporters that being in politics is like having a child in college — you keep writing checks and the kid doesn’t graduate.

“I’ve graduated,” Obama joked.

“I’ve run my last campaign,” he added. “But we’re not done with the work that led me to run in the first place, and I’m hopeful that with your continued ideas and support, your voices, that we can continue to make progress over the next several years.”

Discuss this topic and other political issues in the politics discussion forums.

Philip Rucker is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where he has reported since 2005.

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