Obama Teams Canvass For Support

President Obama played like candidate Obama on Saturday — calling on his supporters to go door to door to get voters to pressure Congress to pass his budget.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Barack Obama - the president now, not the candidate - sent canvassers knocking door to door across the country today. Their message: Push Congress to approve his budget and other ambitious programs.

No president has ever launched a campaign like this before to try to pass legislation, and the outcome will help answer a question that a lot of folks have been asking since the election. Can Mr. Obama use the same grassroots tactics that got him elected to govern? NPR's Daniel Zwerdling has the story.

(Soundbite of knocking)

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Did canvassers knock on your door today?

Unidentified Woman #3: Hi, I'm from Organizing for America. Do you know about us yet?

ZWERDLING: Because if they did, you might have figured this sounds more like an election campaign than something about the federal budget.

Unidentified Woman #3: Okay, we're part of Obama's army here.

ZWERDLING: This is a new political strategy at work, and every politician and every political analyst is going to study what happened today because if it works, it could change the way presidents build support for their programs.

As you already know, Barack Obama's election campaign has become legend. They amassed more than 13 million e-mail addresses. They used the Internet to raise money and organize volunteers.

So, President Obama went back to those tactics a few weeks ago to try to push his budget through Congress. For instance, if you are one of those 13 million e-mail addresses, you started getting videos.

(Soundbite of video)

Governor TIM KAINE (Democrat, Virginia; Chairman, Democratic National Committee): Hello everyone, I'm Tim Kaine, chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

ZWERDLING: Kaine doesn't make the most riveting videos, but he seemed earnest, and he asked people to organize parties at their homes. The guests would watch this video and presumably munch chips, and they'd discuss the president's agenda.

Gov. KAINE: It's not enough for an economic recovery plan just to be debated in the halls of Congress. It has to be understood by Americans how this plan will directly benefit them in their communities.

ZWERDLING: Next, those 13 million people on the e-mail list got a video from the president.

(Soundbite of video)

President BARACK OBAMA: Now, passing this budget won't be easy. We're already hearing the same worn arguments we've heard for years.

ZWERDLING: And then, the president asked everybody to mobilize.

(Soundbite of video)

President OBAMA: That's where you come in. That's why I'm asking you to head outside this Saturday to knock on some doors, talk to some neighbors, and let people know how important this budget is to our future.

ZWERDLING: So, canvassers fanned out with that message today in apartment buildings, at shopping malls, or just along the streets. A spokesman at the Democratic National Committee told me they don't know yet just how many people went canvassing. And reporters from NPR member stations in four states told us that some canvassers seemed disorganized. They didn't show up, or they forgot what they were supposed to say.

In any case, the DNC gave canvassers two asks, as they say in canvassing lingo. They were supposed to ask people to sign a petition.

Unidentified Woman #3: I wanted to ask you if you would be willing to sign a pledge saying you're on board with supporting Barack Obama's bold approach for renewing America's economy?

Unidentified Man #2: Okay. You said pledge. I almost thought you needed some money.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Woman #4: No.

ZWERDLING: And then, they were supposed to ask people to call or write Congress. A volunteer named Brenda Siegelman(ph) approached a man named Rave Miller(ph) at a farmer's market in Philadelphia.

Ms. BRENDA SIEGELMAN (Canvasser): What we're trying to do is, we're trying to get his budget passed without watering it down.

Mr. RAVE MILLER: His budget passed without watering it down?

Ms. SIEGELMAN: That's correct. It's already somewhat watered down.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLER: Oh, I'd like to see it watered down a lot more.

Ms. SIEGELMAN: Would you? Okay, well, thank you anyway for stopping.

Mr. MILLER: All right.

Ms. SIEGELMAN: It's the best you can do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ZWERDLING: But he may not be typical. Station reporters told us that most of the people they talked to ended up signing the pledge. So, of course, now everybody wants to know: Did President Obama's canvassing tactic work?

People who canvassed are supposed to call the Democratic National Committee and tell them how many signed the petition. And we should hear those numbers in the next few days. And then the key test is, will huge numbers of people deluge Congress with calls and letters, and will they say pass President Obama's budget? And unfortunately, the best answer to that question is the worst cliché in journalism: Only time will tell. Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News.

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Obama Backers Return To Streets To Push Plans

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.

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