In 2010, Arkansas Rep. Marion Berry recounted talking to a confident President Obama, who had been encouraging wavering, moderate Democrats to support his ambitious legislative agenda because “you’ve got me.” Even though health care and the stimulus didn’t poll well in conservative-leaning districts like Berry’s, Obama was convinced his personal likeability would be enough to win the day. Instead, he saw valuable political capital spent on a health care law that eventually passed, but cost him control of the House and his then-sterling image.
Fast-forward three years later, and Obama is again showing off. In his gun control press conference Wednesday, he exuded similar confidence, urging the Democratic grassroots in those Congressional districts “where the tradition of gun ownership is strong to speak up and say [passing gun control legislation] is important.” He’s been looking to pick fights with Congressional Republicans as he begins his second term, not compromise.
Obama is once again hoping his personal brand can transcend the messy game of political wheeling-and-dealing. That’s the thinking behind the new 501(c)4 organization being launched by former Obama campaign officials, as the Los Angeles Times reported Thursday. It’s seeking to “leverage the campaign's sophisticated organizing tools and rich voter database to support the president's policy objectives,” Matea Gold writes. It will be run by Jim Messina, Obama's 2012 campaign manager.
This isn’t the first time the White House has sought to transfer the power of the campaign into a lobbying shop -- it was attempted in 2009, when Organizing for America was housed within the Democratic National Committee. This time, it’s operating as an independent entity.
"I'm sure there's people feeling some consternation. They think the Obama team should be all about helping them and helping the party and not just about the president. But I don't agree because I don't think the Obama stuff is transferable," said Democratic strategist Steve Elmendorf. "It's very Obama-centric. It might be better for us to communicate with our people through them than through the DNC."
But it risks suffering from the same fundamental challenges as its previous iteration. Voters, in 2008 and 2012, rallied behind Obama the candidate more than a set of specific policies he endorsed. The president never mentioned gun control at all on the campaign trail. Immigration was a belated addition to the campaign stump speech, after receiving pressure from Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. It took Vice President Biden to force Obama’s hand on embracing gay marriage.
Most of Obama’s supporters undoubtedly agree with him on the need for more gun control and immigration reform. But it’s a very open question on whether they’ll actively campaign as hard for such legislation as they did for Obama’s re-election. The president’s campaign was personality-driven, but can his coalition be reassembled without Obama on a ballot?
"The Obama team also has a transferability problem. People get involved in a presidential election but it's much harder to get them to do other things like calling their congressman about gun control," Elmendorf said.
More importantly, there are fundamental limitations into how effective an Obama-driven lobbying machine will be in persuading the legislators he needs most – many of whom hail from states and districts where Obama isn’t particularly popular. On gun control, the president will probably need to pick off a handful of Southern Democratic senators who will be more carefully listening to their constituents than an advertising blitz from a Washington-based organization. There aren’t a whole lot of swing-district House Republicans left to persuade; most are entrenched in safe seats, thanks to gerrymandering and partisan self-sorting.
As former House Speaker Tip O’Neill famously said, all politics is local, and all the outside money in the world won’t change longstanding, hardened opinions on politically polarizing subjects, especially gun rights. The president has his work cut out for him, with or without a new shiny machine by his side.
Beth Reinhard contributed to this report.