Thursday, September 29, 2011

One Voice Can Change A Room....Courage Campaign Activists Meet With White House Officials

Courage Campaign activist meet in the OEOB auditorium in Washington D.C.

Please note: the following post reflects my opinions, observations and reflections alone. I don't speak for the Courage Campaign (the group which organized the trip), nor do I speak for any of the other activists who attended the same meetings.

Whether you're a supporter of President Obama, or his harshest critic, I'm going to ask you to hang in there and read what I promise you is going to be a very long post.


Because for one day last week this community organizer - with no professional interest in politics, and who couldn't lobby her way out of a paper bag - brought the hopes, fears, and messages of 1,300 others just like me (and you) directly to key White House officials, staffers and cabinet members in a way I never hoped or thought possible.

And they listened.


OEOB where we met for the day.

On the last week of August, I received one of "those" emails. You know the ones, sincere emails from OFA and the DCCC promising you dinner with the President if only you'd donate $3 by midnight tonight.

This one asked, "Would you like to join us at the White House?". Out of reflex, I almost deleted it, except I realized it was coming from someone I actually knew and had collaborated with, Rick Jacobs, founder of the California Courage Campaign.

Dear Marta,

The Courage Campaign would like to extend an invitation to you as a key California progressive supporter and leader for a "California Day" at the White House in Washington, D.C. on September 23, 2011. Organized by Courage Campaign and hosted by The White House Office of Public Engagement, the purpose of this day-long conference is to meet with key Administration, policy, and political experts to talk about issues and plans that affect California.

It must be a joke, I thought. No joke, Rick assured me. This was real.

Why me, I asked? I'm not a politician or a lobbyist. I don't head up a non-profit, and I have zero interest in ever running for office (I like my day job). And since 2008, when I volunteered as a Regional Field Organizer for the Obama campaign, I've become progressively (pun intended) more critical of the Obama administration and OFA, harsh even. This entry in my blog,, is not untypical:

In 2008, I took a six-month unpaid leave of absence to work on the Obama campaign. In fact, I was a Regional Field Organizer in Southern California. I also maxed out my campaign donations - the first time I've ever done that in my life.

Not in 2012. Next year, I'll be turning my focus on retaking the House, keeping the Senate, and electing good Democrats in local races.

I highly recommend many of you do the same.

If I went, I told Rick, I have no incentive to tone it down. In fact, the only way I'd agree to go is if I were allowed to speak my mind. I'd be respectful, but I would not hold back.

"We're counting on it.", Rick said.

And that's how, on September 23d, I came to be in the auditorium of the Old Executive Office Building with a hundred other California activists, DFA organizers, labor and union leaders, non-profit representatives, key White House officials, staffers and cabinet David Plouffe a piece of my mind.

Our fearless leader, Rick Jacobs with Labor Secretary, Hilda Solis


Courage Campaign activists.

On Thursday, as we flew from LAX to Washington-Dulles, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis was dragged before Darrell Issa to answer for the sins of Solyndra, the solar power company which had gone belly-up despite half a billion dollars in government loan guarantees.

Issa, an opportunist who never passes up an opportunity to score political points, hoped to use the hearing to strangle the life out of the administration's green jobs initiative. The title of his latest inquisition hearing?

“How Obama’s Green Energy Agenda Is Killing Jobs.”

On Friday, as we met with White House officials, the Republican-controlled House was threatening yet another government shutdown. This time the hostages were FEMA and a federal loan program designed to encourage auto companies to develop green car technologies and to keep those green jobs in America. As an added bonus, they also passed the TRAIN Act, a nasty piece of work which would force regulators to prioritize economic considerations over science and health, and would repeal or block new and pending clean air safeguards.

"That's one train you don't want to see coming." said one of the officials we met with on Friday.


EPA Administrator, Lisa Jackson

That was the backdrop as a hundred jet-lagged bright-tailed and bushy-eyed California activists filed into the Old Executive Office Building auditorium at 8am on a Friday morning - Washington D.C. as Crazy Town USA - a fact-free zone where Republican politicians demanded, "Where are the jobs, Mr. President!", even as they worked overtime to cut loose hundreds of thousands of Americans from the workforce.

So, after a few brief introductions, the White House laid down only two ground rules for the day:

1) Legally, since we were meeting on the White House grounds, we could only discuss policy. Politics and elections were verboten topics.

2) To facilitate a candid discussion, all remarks were off the record. We could report our impressions of the meetings, but we could not directly quote any individual.

Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, Jon Carson

And with that, we began. The day they had planned for us was packed.

In the morning, we would meet with a number of White House officials and cabinet members, including the Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, Jon Carson, Deputy Director of National Economic Council, Brian Deese, EPA Administrator, Lisa Jackson, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, White House advisor David Plouffe, and Chief of Staff, Bill Daley .

During lunch, Science and Technology advisor, Dr. John Holdren would run us through the administration's priorities (this PDF file has a good overview).

After lunch, we would attend breakout sessions on immigration, education, the environment (I attended that one), housing, LGBT, healthcare reform, and labor issues.

Lastly, we would end our day back at the OEOB auditorium, as Jon Carson and Senior advisor Valerie Jarrett debriefed us for a final "listening" session.


Economics advisor, Brian Deese.

The Courage Campaign visit, planned since May, happened to coincide as the administration unveiled the American Jobs Act, a proposal Freakonomics columnist Justin Wolfers called a "very real plan"

- It’s reasonably well targeted. Unemployment insurance extensions will get spent. Infrastructure money gets spent and also builds stuff. As for the payroll tax: Who knows if it gets spent, but the point is to stimulate hiring, rather than spending.

- It’s reasonably well designed. The biggest problem with a payroll tax is that firms get it even for employees already on the books. But this time, the biggest payroll tax cut is only for firms raising their payrolls. This will yield a much bigger bang-for-each-buck. Early analyses have yet to realize how important this is.

- It’s reasonably timely. The usual argument against fiscal policy is that the spending only occurs by the time the economy is booming again. There’s no chance of that occurring. Perhaps this provides the confidence boost we need to counter double-dip concerns.

- It’s reasonably well focused. Tax credits for hiring the long-term unemployed will be very helpful in preventing the current recession doing long-term harm.

- It’s reasonably clever, removing the incentive to fire people, rather than reduce hours. (aka “Job sharing”)

- It’s reasonably evidence-based. Having the unemployed talk to a jobs counselor before extending benefits can have huge effects at minimal cost.

All told, it’s a very real plan and very specific. None of this is magic: Government gets more active when the market fails, and we pay it back when the market booms. This is all standard economics. There’s no gold-buggery, voodoo austerity or laughable Laffer-y. Obama’s not making up economics, he’s using simple tools to solve the obvious problems.

Nearly everyone we talked with pushed the AJA. And by "pushed", I mean Deese, Solis, Jackson, and Carson all delved deeply into the bill, providing real-world examples of how it would work, patiently addressing our questions and concerns along the way.

Admittedly, I'm no policy wonk (except for some environmental issues), but one thing became crystal clear to me by the end of the day. The administration isn't screwing around - they're serious about passing the bill. And if they can't do it, they want to make sure it's Republicans who correctly get the blame.

Is this just election year politics? Maybe. Probably. But the thing is, it doesn't matter.

Republicans have been allowed to tank the economy, especially after the 2010 midterms. Frankly and honestly, I believe President Obama and his advisers enabled that to happen. It doesn't do you a hell of a lot of good to be the "adult" in the room if Junior is setting fire to the house.

Based on everything I heard that day, along with some reported indications from Axelrod and Plouffe, I think the administration is finally coming to grips with that reality now.

So it's my belief the White House has every incentive to bring the fight to the Republicans. If the economy tanks, so does this administration. Obama knows it, Congressional Democrats know it, and the Republicans know it.


If I had one takeaway from the day, it was this: Progressives have allies in the White House.

Not everyone in the White House, and maybe, sometimes, not even Obama, but I met people that day who were - and they were doing everything they could to indicate to us what activist strategies were working to move congress and the administration.

The XL tar sands pipeline demonstrations in front of the White House were noted more than once. So were the actions of aggressive LGBT activists who organized around DADT. Coalition building amongst different activists groups towards common goals was specifically mentioned and encouraged. One official mentioned how Planned Parenthood and Pell grant activists joined forces during the debt ceiling fight to effectively mitigate the damage. That action was directed towards Congress, but was cited as a global example.

To me, this just validates what progressives - including Van Jones at NN11 - have already been (endlessly) talking about - that we need to get out of our silos and start joining forces.

The White House even came up with a way for activists to force the administration to respond to their concerns. Last week they unveiled "We The People", a site where activists can launch online petitions around any cause or issue that concerns them.

If the petition gets 5,000 signatures in 30 days, the appropriate official will have to make a public response. Already there are over a 100 petitions in the pipeline, petitioning for everything from the forgiving student loans to repealing DOMA.

Check it out. Give that sucker a test drive.

If this administration remains frustrated with Progressives, the officials we met with were doing a good job of hiding it, even when there were policy disagreements about HAMP, the deficit, education and immigration reform.

With one exception, it was evident they knew the real enemy wasn't us, it was Republicans and the moneyed interests which back them. With one exception, they were looking for partners, not uncritical worker-bees and ATMs.

With one exception.

Which brings me, at last, to Mr. Plouffe.

White House advisor, David Plouffe

I don't think I would be betraying any confidences to say he was talking at us and not to us, and that even as he called himself a "progressive", he rattled off a list of administration "accomplishment" that set my teeth on edge. If you've ever been on an OFA national conference call, you probably know what I'm talking about.

Fortunately, I did not come to the White House meeting "unarmed". A couple of days beforehand I put out a survey to all my activist friends in California, asking them (and you) what they'd like me to say if given the chance.

Although not perfect (Nate Silver I'm not), the survey was meant to reflect the discussions we have here and in our communities every day.

Thanks to an activist on Daily Kos , who took the ball and ran with it, the survey went viral. In less than 48 hours, nearly 1,300 people from every state but Rhode Island and North Dakota took part. A thousand of you left comments.

It was an incredibly powerful tool to bring with me to Washington, and it was known to the White House even before I arrived. Jon Carson even tweeted a link to the survey, encouraging people to participate.

The results were not unexpected. Only half the people surveyed who volunteered for Obama in 2008 are considering doing so again in 2012. Only about a third say they'll donate to the campaign. 97% said they voted for Obama in 2008. Only 72% said they would in 2012.

This heartbreaking comment from Columbia, Maryland was typical:

My husband and I "did everything right". And we are losing ground in every way. He has been without work for 16 months. He can't find work, can't find interviews. It was only because we lived simply to begin with and did not use credit to overextend and buy that which we didn't truly qualify for that we have not lost the home our five children live in yet.

But we can see that day coming.

My job does not quite cover our needs and unemployment insurance has recently run out. We cashed out his 401K because it will buy us 6 more months of mortgage payments. HAMP was a disaster that helped almost no one, job creation by the government non-existent......

I recently took down the framed front page of the Washington Post on Inauguration Day off my dining room wall. I couldn't look at it anymore. I no longer know hope or believe in change.

So when Mr. Plouffe was done, I raised my hand......And started to talk.

Careful not to couch the survey in terms of electoral politics, I told him about the enthusiasm gap between 2008 and now. But I also let him know there really was a light at the end of the tunnel, and it wasn't the headlights of an oncoming semi.

President Obama's recent push for the American Jobs Act, increasing taxes on millionaires, the bailout of the US auto industry, proposing that the Bush tax cuts expire for anyone making over $250K, emphasis on green jobs and increased auto mileage standards, and support of the DREAM act and DADT, were all widely popular.

Many comments reflected this.

I am so proud of the president for coming out with the proposal for higher taxes on millionaires. It's so common sense.
State College, PA

Please continue to emphasize raising revenue and creating jobs over deficit reduction at this point in our economic circumstances.
Portland, OR

Two thumbs up for the line "This is not class warfare, this is Math!"
Ogdensburg, NY

Please tell the President to TRUST US that we have his back if he will just STAND UP to the Republican obstructionism happening in our government.
San Francisco, CA

It takes two to be bi-partisan, and the Republicans seem to have a hearing problem.
Henniker, NH

Obama could find a cure for cancer and Boehner, Cantor and the rest of them would want to know why it wasn't for diabetes.
Manhattan Beach, CA

I told Plouffe (and later Carson), the most remarkable thing about the survey was that a huge percentage of respondents hadn't shut the door on President Obama yet. They said they were "undecided" about their involvement in the coming year. This tells me they're waiting, and watching, to see what this administration does.

They're tired and beat up, but they still have hope. If Obama does what he says he'll do, and if he's consistent about it, they'll be ready to stand with him again.

To Plouffe's credit, he listened to you. And said he'd be willing to continue the discussion.


Valerie Jarrett receives an invitation for President Obama to visit Azusa school children

So, if you've gotten this far, here's the "ask". (You know there had to be one, didn't you?)

First, do what you can to help push the American Jobs Act. Don't sit on the sidelines for this one. Call your representatives. Then call your friends and ask them to start making calls.

Second, do something for 2012.

If you have a beef with how the Obama administration has governed for the last three years, I will not be the person to tell you your issues aren't legitimate. I have serious concerns with how President Obama and his advisors have handled everything from the Stupak amendment to the debt ceiling crisis to Gitmo.

Spending 8 hours on the White House grounds does not erase any of that.

However, here's what that day in Washington did make clear to me; if President Obama loses in 2012, even if we take back the House and hold on to the Senate, our country will be well and truly screwed. Because Issa and Ryan-worshipping Republicans will infest every level of the Executive Branch.

Hilda Solis. Gone. Lisa Jackson. Gone. Dr. John Holdren. Gone. Green jobs. Gone. The EPA. Gone.

Look, if you can't get your head around working towards reelecting Obama, find some progressive Congressional candidates and help us take back the House and put the gavel back in Nancy Pelosi's hands where it belongs.

Minority Leader, Nancy Pelosi

Or, how about working to get Elizabeth Warren elected to the Senate? Because it would be a heck of lot easier to elect her President in 2016 if she were a sitting Senator, and didn't have to run against an incumbent Republican President.

If the last three years have taught me anything, "change we can believe in" has to come from us.

Our work doesn't end with an election, in fact it's only just begun. Washington is about inertia and holding on to the status quo. I don't care how promising the politician, once they get behind those marble walls their world gets very small.

They cannot and will not do what we elected them to do unless we help them, or force their hand. This is true even of Republicans, and something the Koch brothers, Wall Street, and the PACs funding the Tea Party movement understand all too well.

Doing nothing in 2012 may not be an option, but, as it turns out, doing nothing after 2012 isn't an option either.

Click on this link to see all my photos from the weekend.

One final note.

My deepest gratitude to Rick Jacobs and the Courage Campaign for organizing the day, for Jon Carson and his staff at the Office of Public Engagement for facilitating, and to the hundred California activists who travelled to DC at their own expense to make their voices heard.


  1. Thanks so much for giving us a summary! This was good reading!

  2. You're welcome! I was glad to do it!

  3. bravo and thanks for thinking of the survey and making it at tool to show the tools. As I said in the survey, I tell Obama and DCCC callers: No money till after the TINY CONGRESS finishes. And if Social Security and Medicare benefits are cut, no money at all.
    I will vote for you, but no work and no money.
    It is time for this administration to put on its Democratic hat and stop playing conciliator with the barbarians. We cannot go backward. The 1950s and 1890s are not a preferred destination.

  4. Way to go, Marta!

    I continue to feel that, notwithstanding the fact that I believe the President is engaged in virtually cleaning the Augean Stables, without standing his ground and refusing to compromise with a Congress that will only demand more