Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The President’s Field Team

Last week I heard the perfect one-line description of Organizing for America.

Mary Jane Stevenson, the newly hired California State Director, got up before a big room full of Democratic Party donors -- who were there to drink fine wine and eat elegant little nibbles and enjoy the name entertainment at a luxe Beverly Hills hotel – and did something unusual. She gave them a field pitch.

She asked them to join OFA – which she described as “the President’s Field Team.” To reinforce the point, a group of us there as volunteers worked the room with clipboards, pens and signup sheets.

Organizing for America is something no one has ever tried. Which makes it hard to pull off. And it is based on a local organizing model. Which makes it hard to see how it is working. But here's what I learned the last time - don't judge an Obama-led organizing effort by its early reviews.

If you have followed my blogging over the last couple of years, you know I am fully acquainted with the delicious taste of the Obama Kool-Aid. For the better part of two years, I had the unforgettable experience of being part of the "largest field operation in the history of American politics." And I wrote a lot about my take on the theory of that campaign, and its grassroots component, from my perspective as a long time volunteer and eventual staff member.

Like many people, I have been wondering what would become of this campaign organization, now an official project of the DNC but with its own identify, staff and structure. I have been following the process of building Organizing for America since December. I have talked to people who were part of the planning process. I have participated in the process of evaluating what we did. I have been able to see first hand the rollout in California, and I have talked to people around the country about what is happening in their areas.

And I’ve seen -the good-, the bad and the ugly in the early reviews, and in debate on this site. OFA is too top-down, too disorganized, too sycophantic, too vague. What I think that debate is missing is a clear sense of what OFA intends to be - perhaps because the organization itself has been in a long period of development and its mission is finally becoming clear. My take on this isn't official. It's just one highly engaged volunteer's perspective on why I'm on the team, that I think might help other people decide whether or not this is for them.

Zephyr Teachout has been one of the fiercest early critics of Organizing for America - uncomfortably echoing the language of hoping for failure we have heard from Republicans about Obama:

Organizing for America sent out a request for house parties today, asking people to watch a video about Obama's economic recovery plan, talk about it with their friends, and build support for it. While there will be tweaks, this is the kind of action we can anticipate from OFA.

I predict that there will be perhaps a thousand of such parties, then hundreds, then dozens. I think OFA will fail in its mission to directly engage Obama supporters in supporting Obama's executive actions. And I think this is a very good thing. . . .

This is not to say I think OFA should throw away its list and networks. If it were up to me, I would encourage OFA to throw all of its support and resources at local democratic parties and officials--to decentralize the data, and let local groups experiment. I believe Obama has largely done his job, by getting elected and by electrifying the country and showing people that they can have power; but for them to exercise it meaningfully, instead of simply acting as shills for Presidential policy, they will need to exercise it through our representative offices: Congress, and the state houses.

She found the situation more hopeful in a recent post describing a recent OFA organizing meeting in Massachusetts:

The report from Massachussetts suggested to me that there are three possible futures for the network formerly known as the Obama campaign:

--It dissipates, with some significant number of people inspired by the campaign joining other groups
--It is explicitly joined to the Democratic Party throughout the country, and local democratic party operatives work with the new Obama-inspired to build strength
--Groups like OFA-MA use the next year, before dissipation, to find and create local grassroots groups that listen to and learn from, but do not directly follow, the direction of OFA

The Massachusetts event was indeed impressive. As this great first hand account explains, it was organized by volunteers and drawing hundreds of people to hear from Mitch Stewart and others about OFA and to talk about community organizing. Teachout focuses in particular on how participants talked together in break out sessions about their own ideas and policy priorities, and not just about the OFA questions that were part of that meeting.

But with all due respect to ZT, there is yet another path for OFA, and it is from my perspective the far more likely and most appropriate future identity for this organization: the President's Field Team.

Imagine if the President called you up and asked you to join his West Wing staff. You might say yes - this is a great opportunity to have a real impact on problems I care about, to be part of an historic policymaking moment in the United States. You might say no - because it means being part of an Administration you might not always agree with. But the choice is yours. There are pros and cons. And if you choose to say no, there's a host of other ways to participate in politics and policymaking.

OFA is like a smaller version of that choice. You could be part of the President's Field Team, and take what we learned to do during the campaign and turn that firepower on Congress, on the health insurance industry, on whoever is standing in the way. Or you could do something else, perhaps challenging the President to change his policy, or fighting for local and state issues and candidates you believe in. There's even a way you can do both, I think, as a volunteer, as long as you are clear about when you engaging in work for OFA and when you aren't.

So -- do you want to work for the President? Nope, he probably won't be able to pay you. But keep reading. The payoff might be more interesting than you think. . .

Last week, the President literally made that call to OFA volunteers. As diaried by mdmslle, President Obama made a personal pitch to volunteers, asking them to get involved in pushing for health care. In that diary's comments, and in my many conversations over the last few months with other activists about OFA, I have heard plenty of analysis in line with Teachout's call for OFA to become the local agents of the Democratic Party or a locus of grassroots resistance (or die of boredom/uselessness).

So why shouldn't OFA go the way ZT suggests?

Option A - local Democratic shock troops - is potentially problematic. Al Giordano points out that the alignment of Teachout's "local democratic party operatives" and the Obama-inspired volunteer organizers is far from seamless:

In Teachout's view, "local democratic parties and officials" ought to be the filter for the future organizing of the Obama movement, rather than Organizing for America. Who's she frickin' kiddin'? Herself? She clearly doesn't "get" that the Obama movement was an insurgency in the Democratic party, against many of the practices and turf-warriors of those local parties and officials.

Hers would be a very romantic notion if, and only if, the Democratic Party on the state and local level had already undergone the kind of transformation that the 2008 elections (and the 2005 Howard Dean DNC chairmanship victory) brought to the DNC. But the truth is that most state and local Democratic parties are still stuck in the stone ages of the Clinton-Bush years. . .

In other words, handing over data (voter lists and information, donor lists, etcetera, built by so many volunteer data-entry folks and field organizers last year) to "local democratic parties and officials" as Teachout advocates - which will be done but to a more carefully limited and targeted extent for the 2010 elections anyway - would not decentralize the data in the spirit of Jeffersonian democracy. . . . the rank-and-file volunteers and organizers from the Obama 2008 campaign would end up outcast (and correspondingly demoralized) much more so than if information and resources flow through Organizing for America, which at least is about them, and not about the old guard in local Democratic Party organizations.

Indeed, as we've seen in the stimulus fight, not all our local Democratic politicians are on board with the President's agenda. Healthcare will be even tougher.

Option B - a fully independent grassroots entity where all the local teams are fully autonomous is what might have happened if we lost the election. But in fact, we won. The White House and the DNC can't exactly be faulted for wanting an organization that they fund and manage to actually carry out their priorities.

Option C - an organization that really isn't very active or effective, is actually what a lot of folks have been worrying about. Ari Melber sums it up in a post mocking a recent OFA e-mail ask:

The drive is boring and thus more likely to falter, as Zephyr Teachout wrote in this space, because the goals are predictably top-down (support the President's agenda) and somewhat propagandistic (because he said so).

Then, click through your inbox and you'll find the new petition is almost comically vague. The three goals are: Reduce cost; Provide choice; and Ensure affordable care for all. It is hard to see any need to demonstrate official public support for those general principles.

Finally, asking millions of Obama's strongest supporters to simply sign petitions, regardless of their location, ambition and ability, is surely redundant and probably wasteful.

What I think this criticism misses is that we're at the beginning of a new campaign. In the warm afterglow of building a huge, record-breaking and highly-effective campaign organization, our expectations for Organizing for America are predictably off the charts. But in fact, OFA has to go back, one by one, to all its supporters and re-engage them. Each campaign requires a new pass (or 12) through the list, carefully identifying supporters and potential supporters, volunteer leaders ready to take action, and connecting with individual voters, or in this case potential citizen activists.

House parties, calling your member of Congress, signing a petition. Each contact, each local activity seems quite small. But enough of them, on a big enough scale, produces surprising results.

Last week’s fundraiser was a “small win.” Fundraisers – the big, glitzy ones for the big spenders, not the small donor houseparties and events, are usually not the best places to sign up volunteers. If there is a pitch to get involved, it is low-key and general. But hey, we went in with out clipboards. And came out with pages of names, numbers and e-mail addresses. All of these people are being asked to host house parties this weekend. And they will be asked for more, again and again.

In fact, we've been here before. Here's what I wrote back in November of 2007 - before Iowa, before Super Tuesday, before states like Indiana and North Carolina fell in the general election.

Largely invisible up until now, Obama's field structure is now coming into focus. That's what is energizing the campaign and the candidate. If Obama wins in Iowa, California and elsewhere, organizing - not oratory - will be the reason. . . . The Obama campaign has been relentless about two things: (1) raising enough money to be competitive with Clinton and (2) building field structure. The first has been fairly visible, with the quarterly reports providing a clear progress indicator. The second has been happening largely below the radar screen. We tend to focus here on what we can see - who has made an endorsement, what has a candidate said about a particular issue. Knowing who is "winning" the field structure war is tough, because we can't really see what the campaigns are doing. We largely rely on impressions or anecdotes, or gut feelings about who is more organized.

. . . And the geographically-based field structure has an advantage. We know our communities. We are calling and canvassing our neighbors, literally. We have a sense of what kinds of messages and strategies can work where we are. It's messy, because it's such a huge organizing project and it is bound to be uneven. It's risky, because the campaign's paid staff and centralized messaging is depending on volunteers to carry our these strategies and they can't fully control it. It's far from perfect. But it is exciting to be a part of it. The payoff, if it works - and I recognize that's a very big if - could be huge.

At that point in time, it was hard to see results. But just as welcoming $10 donors on a scale never before attempted broke the bank, welcoming volunteers with small, easy tasks produced the "largest field operation in the history of American politics."

By the time Obama fought Super Tuesday to a draw, you could begin to see the importance of field organizing in the key primary campaign metric - the delegate count. Obama consistently won delegates - even in areas where he "lost" he kept the count close. He used his staff and field office investments in every state to leverage his much larger volunteer resources. And then he did it again when he beat McCain, turning red states blue across the country. How? Over one million GOTV canvass shifts. Turning California into the nation's GOTV phone bank as we made 2 million phone calls in a single day using only volunteers. .

The key, as Zack Exley and others identified, was developing local volunteer leaders. Instead of simply using the e-mail list passively, the campaign adopted a multi-tier strategy. Over a series of organizing meetings, trainings, and field activities, volunteers with leadership potential became identified. They in turn were tasked with recruiting and mobilizing more volunteers in their area - using both the campaign's lists and their own networks. They were accountable for specific targets, and empowered to manage campaign activities typically performed only by paid staff. Even Patrick Ruffini was impressed.

So that's why I'm excited about the President's Field Team. He knows how to do it, better than almost anyone. And he wants to use it in a way no one else has tried, to build a nationally linked, locally-organized, team-based volunteer model to lobby Congress for health care, education and green energy. And the best part is that we are continuing to build up our progressive organizing capacity. Volunteers can learn from OFA and go work locally on what they care about, or join other campaigns. ZT's options A and B likely benefit from OFA's commitment to training and supporting local organizing, even if OFA itself isn't doing those things.

So yeah, I'm back. I'm making phone calls to volunteers, lugging boxes of clipboards around, doing conference calls with other organizers. I'm becoming reacquainted with the VAN.

It's OK if it isn't for you. But if it is, you can jump right in this weekend. Host a Health Care Kickoff Meeting, or just go to one in your neighborhood or town. Or donate to OFA so it can hire more staff and open field offices across the country.

We need a tidal wave of pressure to get serious health care reform through Congress, not to mention the rest of President Obama's "ambitious" agenda. Fortunately, he has a secret weapon. 

It's the President's Field Team.

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