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President Obama may have a powerful new tool at his disposal in his dealings with Congress - the long list of supporters and donors that his campaign built, some 13 million email addresses. It's being transformed into a permanent grassroots organization based at the Democratic National Committee. NPR's Peter Overby reports.
PETER OVERBY: Just as no other presidential candidate ever had so many volunteers, just as none of them ever collected so much money from so many donors, now President Obama will have a grassroots network of unprecedented size and enthusiasm backing him up. It's going to be called Organizing for America, just a few letters' change from the campaign committee Obama for America, which made the announcement during the inaugural weekend. As usual, it came in an email containing a short video of Mr. Obama.
President BARACK OBAMA: You built the largest grassroots movement in history, and shaped the future of this country. And the movement you built is too important to stop growing now.
OVERBY: And in a second video Friday, campaign manager David Plouffe said members of the new organization will work on such issues as the economy, energy and health care. He said it will be different from a political campaign.
Mr. DAVID PLOUFFE (Democratic Campaign Manager): It's going to be an exciting thing to see moving forward to connect Americans to the debate here in Washington. And I think that that's not only good for our democracy in our country, but will also help President Obama succeed in bringing about the change that we all fought for in the campaign.
OVERBY: Tom Matzzie is a consultant and former Washington director of the liberal online group MoveOn.org. He sees great things ahead for Organizing for America.
Mr. TOM MATZZIE (Political Consultant): We've never had a political leader who has continued their organizing while in office like this at this scale.
OVERBY: Matzzie says it will have effects beyond just grassroots lobbying.
Mr. MATZZIE: For the next 40 years, those people will be involved in their communities in a way that was inspired out of the Obama campaign, and they will go on to run for school boards and city council and maybe president some day.
OVERBY: But there are potential problems.
Dr. JAMES THURBER (Director, Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, American University, Washington): This can backfire fairly easily.
OVERBY: James Thurber is director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington. He says members of Congress might not want to hear from the president's support base.
Dr. THURBER: If they overuse the lists, if they flood the Hill with huge mobilization campaigns and it irritates people, so they have to be very careful the way they use this resource.
OVERBY: Thurber also points out that the people who signed up for Mr. Obama's campaign might not all feel the same way about specific pieces of legislation. And what's more, the Democratic National Committee is as partisan as you can get.
Dr. THURBER: And many of these people in this 13 million list may not be that partisan. They liked his theme of bipartisanship.
OVERBY: A DNC spokeswoman said the arrangement is just starting to get worked out. One question: whether Organizing for America will be part of the DNC, or a free-standing entity under the same roof.
If there are any private-sector counterparts to Organizing for America, one of them would be AARP, the organization for over-age-50 Americans. It claims 40 million members overall. About 10 percent of them get involved in express advocacy, according to AARP's Jim Dau. He says people choose to get on the email list, just like the Obama campaign, and he says each name has a multiplier effect.
Mr. JIM DAU (Senior Manager, Media Relations/Health, AARP): Because you're not just talking to, you know, me sitting at home, but you're talking to someone you know has demonstrated their ability to talk to their neighbors, their friends, their family, and enroll them at the task at hand.
OVERBY: But Dau says activists like these need more than constant calls to action. The organization has to engage them in other ways, too, encouraging get-togethers, asking for opinions, making them feel like part of something bigger.
Mr. DAU: When you're asking for feedback, people are going to know that you're listening. Otherwise, you're going to be relegated to either the spam filter or just, you know, mass deletions.
OVERBY: That's a lesson that the Obama campaign took to heart. What remains to be seen is if the wisdom transfers with the list. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
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