No We Can't

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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."

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