President Obama's grass-roots political machine has been reactivated for a weekend door-knocking crusade designed to sell the administration's economic plan — and its record-busting $3.6 trillion budget.
But the task for the Organizing for America volunteers — tapped from Obama's prodigious campaign e-mail and donor lists — is expected to be markedly more difficult than it was to sell the candidate before last November's election.
Volunteers don't have a candidate to sell, as they did before, and no Election Day end date on which to focus.
Instead, they will be pitching the president's long-term economic and domestic agenda at a time when bailouts, bonuses and bad deficit numbers have been dominating the national conversation.
The sell this weekend, says pollster Scott Rasmussen, "will even be a lot tougher now than it was just a few weeks ago."
"The president clearly has an uphill fight," he said.
Polls show that the president's popularity has remained fairly steady, and there still is general support for the job he is doing to right the economy.
But the administration has been buffeted in recent days by the payout of bonuses to employees of government bailout recipient American International Group, which has led critics to call for the head of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.
Closing the budget sale with the American people has been further complicated by Friday's Congressional Budget Office report, which shows that the federal deficit will soar to more than $1.8 trillion.
A survey released Friday by Rasmussen showed that 50 percent of voters now say they are more worried that the government will do too much, rather than not enough, to right the economy.
That's a 7-point jump from a month ago, Rasmussen says. And it's coupled with data showing that 72 percent of Americans expect government spending to increase under Obama, up from 54 percent two months ago. Generally, the pollster said, spending is seen as a bad thing.
But there still is an active Obama volunteer base, which was mobilized to modest effect recently for a series of house parties to promote the president's economic initiatives during debate on his stimulus package.
To rally interest this time, the Organizing for America group e-mailed supporters a video of OFA leader Mitch Stewart asking for help selling the president's health care, energy and education agendas.
"Because of you, we won," Stewart says, adding that it's "up to you" to ensure that Washington special interests and old habits "don't stand in the way" of Obama's broad agenda.
But whether the call to arms will be answered this weekend is uncertain.
In New Hampshire, Kathy Gillett of Manchester said three people responded to the canvassing invitation that she posted on the Obama supporters' Web site, mybarackobama.com.
"The response has been a little disappointing," said Gillett, who was a volunteer organizer for the Obama campaign. She noted that there will be competing political events Saturday in New Hampshire — including an anti-war demonstration.
But Gillett, who theorized that people don't yet feel a sense of urgency to get out and organize support for the president's budget, planned to set up a booth at a breakfast meeting of the Manchester Democrats to corral more volunteers.
"Organizing for America doesn't have a presence yet," she said. "They're just rolling it out." The organization, which focuses on getting voters to contact elected representatives to support Obama's initiatives, is expected to send a full-time field director to New Hampshire in coming weeks, Gillett said.
The Democratic National Committee Friday afternoon released a list of 18 canvassing events in 15 states and the District of Columbia. But Brad Woodhouse, DNC spokesman, said there are 1,000 door-to-door canvassing efforts scheduled "in all 50 states."
Democratic strategists like Karen Finney say those same people are ready to hit the streets again in an effort to shift the conversation from news of the day to Obama's longer-term initiatives.
"People were upset with AIG because families everywhere are making sacrifices and having to tell their kids they can't take a vacation, or are trying to keep their homes," says Finney, former spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee. "But they're more focused on how to move forward, how to keep jobs, afford health care," she says.
"Beltway conversations can get redundant," she says. "The president and his administration understand where the American people are, and the value in getting neighbors talking to each other about what they liked about Obama."
Hari Sevugan, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, says the party and the administration plan to employ similar efforts throughout Obama's White House term.
"We'll be doing this through the course of the administration to advance the president's policy initiatives," Sevugan says. "This comes from a philosophy that both the president and [DNC] Chairman Gov. Tim Kaine share — that advancing an agenda of change can occur only when people are engaged and buy into the process.
David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager, is helping coordinate the weekend blitz. He has called it an effort to move the conversation outside the beltway to focus on issues regular Americans care about, a repeated Democratic talking point.
Republicans earlier this week countered that Americans have been following the AIG controversy closely — and care about the bailout bonuses.
It will be a difficult sell this weekend, Rasmussen says, "but it's not an unwinnable fight."
"Right now, when we ask about President Obama's budget proposals, respondents are about evenly divided," he says. "But the undecided — now only about 10 percent — still like the president. They trust him and will give him the benefit of the doubt."
Volunteers this weekend have been given the task of helping Obama shift attention from the dire numbers and returning to his campaign narrative of change — as now reflected in his budget initiatives.