On a recent Sunday afternoon in a quiet neighborhood of Arlington, Va., 15 Obama supporters met to talk about health care reform. They shared stories about living through periods without any coverage, of insurers who charged too much for too little and about the various fixes being considered in Congress.
The meeting was much the same as any they've hosted since Barack Obama's election, except a staffer from Organizing For America now regularly joins in. And this time, attendees wanted to know how they could translate their energy into legislative results.
"Our focus should be on what bill does Obama think is the right one," said Anne Roberts of nearby Alexandria. "Simply organizing, it's a good thing. But by now, we have to know what bill he supports."
"What we should be doing is telling our congressmen what we want, especially [Sen. Mark] Warner," said Delores Boyer, an Arlingtonian who began attending to get involved in health care reform. "And we should tell our friends in other states -- because there's no use telling [Rep. Jim] Moran or [Sen. Jim] Webb, they're already behind a public option -- what we think that they might like to suggest to their congressmen."
It's the challenge facing OFA, the arm of the Democratic National Committee tasked with maintaining Obama's campaign network, if it is to exert its influence between and not just during elections. Democratic voters in particular appear rallied for a major reform of the health care system -- a Diageo/Hotline poll last week found their support at 83 percent. OFA has tens of thousands of active members who could be mobilized. The question remains, though, whether the group can channel any of that into effective lobbying.
"You've got to train voters to do something different than voting." -- Greg Dworkin, physician and Daily Kos blogger
"Right after the election, we were all kind of waiting to see, was the organization going to stay together, and if so, what would it do?" James Ricca, a physician and former campaign volunteer, said after the Arlington house meeting. "We're kind of still in that mode. I think a lot of people want to do something. They know that we can't act individually and fly off in a million directions. They're looking for direction."
In the aftermath of Obama's victory, some in Washington looked worriedly to the 13 million e-mail addresses his Web operation had gathered over the course of the election. But fears of an unprecedented permanent campaign that could bring new pressures to bear on lawmakers of both parties have yet to be realized.
As the fight over the president's budget began in earnest this March, former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe announced the group's "first major engagement," and the Washington Post breathlessly reported that "an all-out grass-roots effort" was afoot. What did their effort end up looking like? A national television ad, a call for supporters to contact their lawmakers and thousands of house meetings. Tried-and-true methods, to be sure, but hardly the revolution in grassroots advocacy that Obama For America was in political campaigning.
The challenge, then and now, is retooling a network built primarily for one purpose. "You've got to train voters to do something different than voting," said Greg Dworkin, a physician and prominent member of an earlier grassroots progressive network: Daily Kos. "Everybody knows how to go out and vote, but not everyone knows how to contact their local representative in a way that the representative will hear them."
With another legislative showdown looming over health care, OFA hopes its army of supporters will play a bigger role this time around. The group today kicked off a "week of action" that will include many of the same tactics it used during the budget debate but on a larger scale: calls to contact lawmakers, press conferences, canvasses and phone banks.
Last Wednesday, OFA announced a new television ad targeting swing senators in eight states, including Indiana (home to conservative Democrat Evan Bayh), Maine (home to two potential Republican crossover votes) and Arkansas (home to Wal-Mart). The ad features the real-life stories of five Americans asking for change to the health care system -- indeed, the group has made its supporters' personal stories a keystone of its campaign, advising volunteers to use them as the basis for letters to local newspapers and legislators.
Even as it brings its focus to bear on happenings in Washington, however, OFA remains committed to long-term growth outside the Beltway, said Deputy Director Jeremy Bird. That means volunteers like Anne Roberts and Delores Boyer, for whom health care is the motivating issue, may be disappointed by the group's focus on growing its network for the future rather than on more direct involvement in ongoing legislation.
"Everybody's still to a certain extent trying to figure out how can we build this for the long term, and I don't think you build a long-term movement by just giving people marching orders," said Brandyn Keating, OFA's state director in Virginia. "That's not community organizing."
The group's impact on health care could be further hampered by its relatively slow rollout. While OFA has had staff on the ground in some states since February -- and a volunteer liaison in every state soon after it launched on Jan. 17 -- it's only just now building up its presence elsewhere, connecting with volunteers who have stayed in touch on My.BarackObama.com with minimal direction from above. Bird says the group has a staff presence in 35 states so far and plans to be in all 50 by the end of summer.
"It's very important to us that this is not a short-term, couple-months deal," Bird said. "We're very focused on making sure we have the right staff in place across the country. We've been very meticulous about making sure we get folks who are committed to this long term."
While Organizing For America hasn't significantly grown its much-vaunted e-mail list since the election, Bird says they've seen real progress on other metrics like the number of house meetings and number of attendees since the inauguration. "We know we're being successful because, like the campaign, we're very focused on our internal metrics," he said. The group held hundreds of events this past weekend.
As OFA continues to build, it will have to develop ways of turning house meetings and e-mail addresses into policy successes, or risk sapping its momentum and the enthusiasm of its volunteers.
"That's a huge problem in list management because that's how you keep them alive: giving them a battle to fight, directing their energy by saying, Here, this is something you could do that would be really helpful," noted Jane Hamsher, a progressive blogger whose site, Firedoglake, is trying to whip House Democrats into supporting a public option. "And they're not saying that, and that does leave people frustrated and feeling like, if I really want to make a difference, it's not going to happen here. And that's death for a list."