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

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"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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The failure to reignite Obama's once indomitable field operation has left many of the president's former campaign staff shaking their heads. "How in the hell did we let that happen in Massachusetts?" asks Temo Figueroa, who served as Obama's national field director and is now a political consultant in Texas. "How in the hell did the White House not get Organizing for America seriously engaged in this until there was a week and a half to go?"

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As a candidate swept into office by a grass-roots revolution of his own creation, Obama was poised to reinvent Washington politics, just as he had reinvented the modern political campaign. Obama and his team hadn't simply collected millions of e-mail addresses, they had networked activists, online and off — often down to the street level. By the end of the campaign, Obama's top foot soldiers were more than volunteers. They were seasoned organizers, habituated to the hard work of reaching out to neighbors and communicating Obama's vision for change.

As president, Obama promised to use technology to open up the halls of power and keep the American people involved. "If you want to know how I'll govern," he said, "just look at our campaign." His activists wouldn't just be cheerleaders; they would be partners in delivering on his mandate, serving as the most fearsome whip Washington had ever seen. "At the end of the campaign, we entered into an implied contract with Obama," says Marta Evry, who served as a regional field organizer in California for the campaign. "He was going to fight for change, and we were going to fight with him."

The problems started before Obama was even elected. While his top advisers worked for months to carefully plot out a transition to governing, their plan to institutionalize its campaign apparatus was as ill-considered as George Bush's invasion of Iraq. "There was absolutely no transition planning," says Micah Sifry, the co-founder of techPresident, a watchdog group that just published a special report on OFA's first year. In what Sifry decries as a case of "criminal political negligence," Obama's grass-roots network effectively went dark for two months after Election Day, failing to engage activists eager for their new marching orders. "The movement moment," he says, "was lost."

The blame, insiders say, rests squarely with Plouffe. "That was totally Plouffe's thing," a top member of the president's inner circle recalls of the transition planning. "It really was David."

By that point, at the end of the campaign, Plouffe had his eyes on the exit. He was gaunt, exhausted. His wife was about to give birth to their second child. He needed a break. "There was no question of my joining the administration," he recounts in his memoir. So Plouffe, in a truly bizarre call, decided to incorporate Obama for America as part of the Democratic National Committee. The move meant that the machinery of an insurgent candidate, one who had vowed to upend the Washington establishment, would now become part of that establishment, subject to the entrenched, partisan interests of the Democratic Party. It made about as much sense as moving Greenpeace into the headquarters of ExxonMobil.

Steve Hildebrand, Obama's deputy campaign manager, tried to dissuade Plouffe. "The DNC is a political entity," he says. "Senators who you are going to need to put significant pressure on to deliver change — like Ben Nelson of Nebraska, who was opposed to health care reform — are voting members of the DNC. It limited how aggressive you could be." Hildebrand pushed Plouffe to make "Obama 2.0" an independent nonprofit, similar to FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity, the right-wing instigators of the Tea Party uprising. Free from the party apparatus, Hildebrand argued, the group could raise unlimited funds and "put enough pressure on conservative Democrats to keep them in line."

But Plouffe was resolute. Obama was troubled by the prospect of big-dollar donors driving an independent nonprofit, and the DNC offered a ready infrastructure and fewer legal hurdles. "The president is a Democrat," says Stewart, a veteran of Obama's victory in Iowa who took over from Plouffe as OFA's director. "It would be very hard to explain why Obama's grass-roots field team is not housed with his party."

Plouffe checked out to write his memoir — but as a senior adviser, he continued to call many of the shots. In a muddy chain of command, Stewart officially reports to the head of the DNC, but in practice he takes many of his cues from Plouffe. "He has an incredible input on what we do and don't do," says Stewart.

 

The decision to shunt Organizing for America into the DNC had far-reaching consequences for the president's first year in office. For starters, it destroyed his hard-earned image as a new kind of politician, undercutting the post-partisan aura that Obama enjoyed after the election. "There were a lot of independents, and maybe even some Republicans, on his list of 13 million people," says Joe Trippi, who launched the digital age of politics as the campaign manager for Howard Dean in 2004. "They suddenly had to ask themselves, 'Do I really want to help build the Democratic Party?'"

In addition, with Plouffe providing less input in his inner circle, Obama began to pursue a more traditional, backroom approach to enacting his agenda. Rather than using OFA to engage millions of voters to turn up the heat on Congress, the president yoked his political fortunes to the unabashedly transactional style of politics advocated by his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel. Health care reform — the centerpiece of his agenda — was no longer about mobilizing supporters to convince their friends, families and neighbors in all 50 states. It was about convincing 60 senators in Washington. It became about deals.

"There were two ways for Barack Obama to twist arms on Capitol Hill," says Trippi. "You can get the best arm-bender in town to be your chief of staff — and I don't think there'd be many people who would deny that Rahm is a pretty good pick. Or the American people can be your arm-bender. What I don't understand is why the White House looked at it as an either/or proposition. You could have had both."

The shift in tactics left OFA sitting on the sidelines. A far cry from the audacious movement that rose to the challenge of electing America's first black president, the group has performed like a flaccid, second-rate MoveOn, a weak counterweight to the mass protests and energetic street antics of the Tea Baggers. Rather than turning out thousands of voters at rallies for the "public option" in health care reform, the White House instructed OFA to adopt a toothless, almost invisible approach: asking followers to sign a generic "statement of support." In July, when OFA ran ads asking voters to call their senators and urge them to vote for health care reform, the effort was quickly slapped down by party leaders. "It's a waste of money to have Democrats running ads against Democrats," fumed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Not only did the White House fail to crank up its own campaign machinery on behalf of health care, it also worked to silence other liberal groups. In a little-publicized effort, top administration officials met each week at the Capital Hilton with members of a coalition called the Common Purpose Project, which included leading activist groups like Change to Win, Rock the Vote and MoveOn. In August, when members of the coalition planned to run ads targeting conservative Democrats who opposed health care reform, Rahm Emanuel showed up in person to put a stop to the campaign. According to several participants, Emanuel yelled at the assembled activists, calling them "fucking retards" and telling them he wasn't going to let them derail his legislative winning streak. "We're 13-0 going into health care!" he screamed. "We're not going to be 13-1!"

Emanuel also locked down OFA: When liberal activists approached the group about targeting conservative Democrats, they were told, "We won't give you call lists. We can't go after Democrats — we're part of the DNC." It was exactly the danger that Hildebrand had warned about when Plouffe made OFA part of the party apparatus. In the end, the activists scrapped the organizing effort, leaving the president without a left flank in the health care debate.

"Instead of channeling the energy of the base, they've been squashing it," says Markos Moulitsas, founder of the influential online forum Daily Kos. "When special interests are represented by people like Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson, you've got to go after those people. Instead, you had OFA railing against Republican obstructionists, when the Republicans were irrelevant to the debate."

Given Emanuel's background as a legislative insider, it's not surprising that the White House shelved its activist base. "They don't give a crap about this e-mail list and don't think it's a very useful thing," a well-sourced former campaign staffer told tech-President. "They want to do stuff the delicate way — the horse-trading, backroom talks, one-to-one lobbying." The feeling inside the White House, the ex-staffer said, is that "unleashing a massive grass-roots army is only going to backfire on us."

 

What backfired, it turns out, was ceding populist outrage on health care to the far right. Because OFA failed to mobilize the American people to confront the insurance companies, it allowed industry-funded Republicans, like former House majority leader Dick Armey, to foment a revolt by the Tea Partiers, whose anger dominated the news. Stewart, the director of OFA, says the failure to anticipate last summer's town-hall ragefest was his. "Organizing for America did not properly plan for that first week of August," he says. "That was an error on my part." OFA scrambled to rally its troops, generating more than 300,000 calls to Congress on a single day. But the belated effort typified the group's first year. "It's always reactive and half-hearted," says Moulitsas. "The movement was built on the concept of big change — but they haven't gone after the things you need to do to enact change." Indeed, OFA's own numbers reveal a sharp drop-off in activist participation: All told, only 2.5 million of its 13 million followers took part in its health care campaign last year — and that's counting people who did nothing but sign the group's "statement of support."

"It didn't work — with an exclamation point at the end!" says Rollins, the former Reagan strategist. "They didn't keep the organization alive. They thought it was out there to use whenever they wanted to use it. But with constituents who feel like they've been part of a revolution — as ours did in '80 and '81 — you've got to feed them. You've got to make sure that they feel important." Instead, says Rollins, OFA "e-mailed them to death, but without any real steps to make them feel a part of the process, like they felt a part of the campaign."

In the wake of Coakley's loss, OFA has been silent on the health care front. "There hasn't been a single directive from OFA since Election Day in Massachusetts," observes Evry, the former campaign coordinator. "No 'Let's get those e-mails out there.' No 'Let's phone-bank.' No 'Let's target this politician.' Nothing." The failure to secure a bill through Emanuel's fuck-the-activists dealmaking has created a double whammy heading into this fall's midterm elections: no legislative victory on health care, coupled with widespread disillusionment among the party's base.

Acknowledging that it was blindsided in Massachusetts, the president has summoned Plouffe back to the White House to oversee campaign efforts. The move is an implicit admission that Plouffe's intermittent engagement was part of the problem. "They thought this was the Harry Potter school of organizing," says one insider. "Just wave your wand. But this shit isn't easy."

The good news is, OFA's last-minute blitz in Massachusetts underscored what it's still capable of. In just 10 days, the group generated more than twice as many calls on Coakley's behalf as they did in support of health care last year — an effort credited with helping to cut Republican Scott Brown's final margin of victory in half. Yet asked if the lesson from Massachusetts is that OFA should recommit itself to being a Democratic turnout machine this fall, Stewart is noncommittal. "We're still figuring it out," he says.

Privately, some party leaders complain that OFA isn't doing enough to campaign for vulnerable Democrats. The only true accomplishment from OFA's first year, they say, is the work it's done to build a national infrastructure for the president's 2012 re-election campaign. To reproduce the organizational structure developed by Obama for America in 2008, OFA has quietly deployed paid staff to all 50 states, building a network from state directors all the way down to a corps of supervolunteers, trained in organizing, who recruit an army of neighborhood team leaders. "There's a skeleton of a re-election campaign already set up — beyond a skeleton," says Figueroa, the campaign's former field director. "There's already meat to the bone in every state in the union. Three years away from the next election, that army is already being continually fed. If you're Barack Obama and his political operation, revving the engine, how is that not a good thing?"

The failures of the past year, however, have left a strong sense of betrayal among many who once were Obama's fiercest advocates. "After all the sweat and tears of the campaign," says the creator of a popular pro-Obama website, "we were owed the opportunity to fight for something." Adds another, "We thought we had earned an ownership stake in the future of our country through this campaign, but that ownership stake has been revoked."

Had Obama let his activists lead the charge and gone to the mat for health care reform, would the outcome have been any different? "I can't say that we would have health care reform," says Moulitsas. "But people wouldn't be so demoralized. We'd have an engaged base still willing to fight for that change. And I tell you what: We would not have lost Ted Kennedy's seat."

From The Archives Issue 1098: February 18, 2010