No We Can't

Obama had millions of followers eager to fight for his agenda. But the president muzzled them — and he's paying the price

February 2, 2010 10:30 AM ET

"Staff are replaceable. A mass of dedicated volunteers is not." — David Plouffe

As the polls were closing in Massachusetts on the evening of January 19th, turning Ted Kennedy's Senate seat over to the Republicans for the first time in half a century, David Plouffe was busy reminiscing about the glory days.

The president's former campaign manager was nowhere to be found at the sprawling war room of Organizing for America, the formidable grass-roots army he had forged during the 2008 campaign. Instead, Plouffe — who serves as a "supersenior adviser" to OFA and its only direct conduit to Obama — was across town at a forum hosted by the Progressive Book Club, where he pimped his memoir, The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama's Historic Victory.

This article appeared in the September 3, 2009 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available in the online archive.

It was a bitterly ironic way to mark the end of the president's first year in office. Together with David Axelrod, Plouffe was the brains of Obama's campaign, the man who transformed a shoestring organization into a high-tech juggernaut. After the 2008 election, Plouffe had taken OFA, previously known as Obama for America, and moved its entire operation into the Democratic National Committee. There, he argued, the people-powered revolution that Obama had created could serve as a permanent field campaign for the Democratic Party, capable of mobilizing millions of Americans to support the president's ambitious agenda. Fresh off the campaign, the group boasted 13 million e-mail supporters, 4 million donors, 2.5 million activists connected through the My.BarackObama social network and a phenomenal $18 million left in the bank. Even Republican strategists were staggered. "This would be the greatest political organization ever put together, if it works," said Ed Rollins, who was to Ronald Reagan what Plouffe is to Obama. "No one's ever had these kinds of resources."

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Yet rather than heeding the lessons of Obama's historic victory, Plouffe and OFA permitted Martha Coakley to fumble away Kennedy's seat — destroying the 60-vote supermajority the Democrats need to pass major legislation. In December and early January, when it should have been gearing up the patented Obama turnout machine — targeting voters on college campuses, trumpeting the chance to make history by electing Massachusetts' first female senator — OFA was asking local activists to make phone calls to other states to shore up support for health care reform. "Our Massachusetts volunteers were calling into Pennsylvania or Ohio to recruit volunteers in support of the president's agenda," admits OFA director Mitch Stewart.

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It wasn't until 10 days before the election, after OFA finally woke up to Coakley's cratering poll numbers, that the group sent out an urgent appeal to members, asking them to help turn out Massachusetts voters from phone banks across the country. But after having been sidelined by the White House for most of its first year, OFA discovered that most of its 13 million supporters had tuned out. Only 45,000 members responded to the last-minute call to arms.

In the final week, volunteers organized 1,000 phone banks and placed more than 2.3 million calls to Massachusetts. OFA also scrambled to place 50 staffers in the state to gin up a door-knocking operation. But it was too late: In a race decided by 110,000 votes, 850,000 of those who voted for Obama in Massachusetts failed to turn out for Coakley. "The relationship-building process we did with Obama for America," concedes Stewart, "is not something you can manufacture in three weeks."

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