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?"
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.
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