LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
The Democratic push for health care was supposed to get a boost from President Obama's grass roots supporters, the organization that helped power the Obama campaign refigured itself as Organizing for America. Members held meetings, sent emails and knocked on doors, advocating for health care. But those efforts did not seem to add a lot of oomph to the president's top legislative priority.
Now Organizing for America, or OFA, is gearing up for an even tougher task: turning out voters for Democrats in the midterm elections.
NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson, reports.
MARA LIASSON: Organizing for America was supposed to put the grass roots muscle behind President Obama's ambitious legislative agenda. It had 13 million email addresses the biggest email list in American politics. It had an army of committed volunteers, battle tested in the 2008 campaign. And it had a charismatic leader who took time out to acknowledge their contributions.
Here's President Obama last month in an interactive online event with OFA staff and volunteers.
President BARACK OBAMA: I know how hard many of you have worked in your communities to do that, either as part of Organizing For America or simply by talking to your friends and neighbors, your co-workers. What you do matters.
LIASSON: But so far, what OFA did hasn't mattered enough, and many Democratic operatives now believe OFA has not lived up to its potential. It wasn't able to put enough grass roots pressure on Congress to counteract the grassroots opposition to the health care bill, and it never figured out how to recreate the bottom up interactive relationship with supporters that it had during the campaign.
Mr. STEVE ROSENTHAL (Former Political Director, AFL-CIO): It has not worked the way a lot of us hoped it would.
LIASSON: Steve Rosenthal is a veteran grassroots organizer who was once the political director of the AFL-CIO. While sympathetic to OFA's daunting task, Rosenthal thinks Obama's grassroots operation made a mistake by not keeping more field staff on the ground after the 2008 elections.
Mr. ROSENTHAL: I think they've been trying to do what's never been done before: to maintain an organization after an election, to keep people as engaged as they were during an election. To try to carry that over is a huge task and takes a lot of resources, and I think it's been severely under-funded. And frankly, if we're going to be successful, it needs to be rebuilt.
Mr. JEREMY BIRD (Deputy Director, OFA): That's just not true.
LIASSON: Jeremy Bird is OFA's deputy director.
Mr. BIRD: We have paid staff in all 50 states who are great organizers. But what was key during the campaign, and what has always been key when the president was organizing in Chicago, is that none of the campaign successes were about paid staff. Paid staff are replaceable. Volunteers who are committed to their community, who are talking to their neighbors, is why we won the election.
LIASSON: But many of those volunteers have had a hard time convincing their neighbors to support the president's agenda.
Ms. DONNA MILLER (Team Leader, Obama Campaign): My name's Donna Miller and I'm an Obama team leader.
LIASSON: Donna Miller was a team leader for the Obama campaign in Wisconsin. And when the campaign morphed into Organizing for America, she stuck with it. Her experience illustrates why even when OFA has field staff and volunteers on the ground, it's become harder to energize the president's supporters.
Ms. MILLER: Part of that has to do with expectations, that a lot of people just had really, really high expectations that things could be done, you know, really, really quickly and happen overnight. And they're finding out that the process of politics is pretty ugly.
LIASSON: Nothing looked uglier to some of the new Obama voters than the push to pass health care legislation.
And Joe Trippi, who ran Howard Dean's grassroots campaign in 2004, thinks the White House legislative strategy for health care made OFA's job harder. Trippi, who is now a Fox News commentator and a Democratic consultant, says the White House chose to play an inside Washington game to pass health care, cutting deals with individual members of Congress.
Mr. JOE TRIPPI (Fox News Commentator, Democratic Consultant): That hurts the Obama brand, because cutting a deal in Nebraska with a U.S. senator for $100 million for his state is not what the Obama brand was about. It was about, you know, not top-down cutting deals, it was sort of bottom-up energy of people having more say and having a bigger impact on Washington.
LIASSON: It wasn't just that the legislative process looked too much like politics as usual, it was also that it didn't deliver. Steve Rosenthal says that, too, disillusioned Obama's core supporters and made it harder for OFA to motivate them.
Mr. ROSENTHAL: Some of it's been watching Congress spend a year debating health care and still seeing nothing happen. So, for most Americans, if you spent a year on the job and didn't have anything to show for it at the end of the year, you probably wouldn't be working in that job very long.
LIASSON: The possibility of losing their jobs is exactly what Democrats face this fall. And that's when the president's grass-roots operation will face is biggest test: getting his supporters to the polls at a time when his party's hold on both chambers of Congress is at stake. It will certainly be an uphill battle.
Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.
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