Friday, January 22, 2010

OFA: left high and dry?

According to Ari Melber's report Year One of Organizing for America: The Permanent Field Campaign in a Digital Age, the preponderance of the work the 13 million folks on Obama's email list have participated in over the past year has been supporting, without legislative specifics or targeting, ill-defined "health care reform." This has been fully 44 percent of all OFA did. (Internal community maintenance came in as the next most frequent ask; I've got a future post on that aspect of OFA.)

The high water mark of citizen-initiated contribution to OFA's healthcare reform work was probably Eric Hurt's video ad that won an OFA contest from among over 1000 entries. Hurt went for the gut. His raw message is just as true today as it was in November when David Plouffe announced its win.

Melber outlines the contradictions the OFA project is trying to surmount. Here's the core:

OFA's legislative posture -- not whether it runs a permanent field campaign, but who the program targets -- cuts across most of the issues facing the organization. The permanent campaign may be less controversial .., if it is primarily waged on behalf of established allies. In turn, however, it becomes less effective when the most pivotal members of Congress receive the least contact and pressure from Obama supporters. And it may be less sustainable, if volunteers conclude that their primary role is to reinforce and thank incumbent allies, rather than actually change the pressure dynamics or voting patterns in Congress.

There was certainly pushback from members who wanted more targeted efforts -- I saw some in meetings I attended. Here's a story from someone writing as "mminka," unusual perhaps in its sophistication, but not unrepresentative what more experienced political activists have felt in OFA.

I worked with OFA on this cause and I liked my group but they were politically soft, and the leadership was also. For example, I suggested we do 'die-ins' where we could all fall down dead in large numbers around the houses or offices of representatives who were opposing reform, to dramatize the stakes in way that anyone, even a reporter, could understand.

They just did not understand what I was talking about. This was too dramatic and extreme for them. They chose to do supportive action, like helping out the Food Bank, to spread vague, generic good will.

And so what happened? The direct and dramatic expression of principal [sic] was ceded to the right - from Obama on down.

Melber, rightly I think, points out that for many (most?) folks who have stuck with OFA,

supporters are interested in the campaign connection to Obama as a person, rather than the agenda-oriented content.

They want to go on feeling that inspiration they reveled in during the competition of the 2008 campaign. And while they may not be very well-informed about policy or governance, they are definitely ready to be "fired up."

I have to wonder what's going to be left of OFA if Democratic politicians, scared chickenshit by losing one Massachusetts election, walk away from health care reform? Not good. And since OFA invested not at all in teaching its troops how the process works, none of Democratic Congresspeople's process excuses are going mean a damn thing to the troops. I imagine they'll feel a bit dumped.

Yet today President Obama, the charismatic figure who pulled them into being, offered nothing more than letting the "dust settle" on the issue he called them to work on. Not very "fired up," that. Yes. activists are likely feeling hung out to dry.

My latest OFA email asked me to organize a State of the Union viewing session for next Wednesday. Can Obama hold these folks? Guess he's going to try.

OFA volunteers got to replicate the work that most of them know best last week in the Massachusetts election, trying to drive turnout for Coakley. Despite making some million or more calls, obviously they didn't ride to the rescue -- nor could they have been expected to. Field can amplify an otherwise successful campaign -- maybe picking up a percentage point or so -- but not replace a feeble campaign. I believe the research that finds long distance phone calling as of doubtful utility.

In fact, I more and more suspect that mobilizing a large volunteer base, in itself, is what gives a campaign momentum as much or more than the work volunteers accomplish. The campaign gets the benefit of the ripple effect from all those volunteers' social networks and that is a boost of some importance. If anyone had that in Massachusetts, it was Brown.

I've written repeatedly about my experience with OFA on this blog; here's a list of OFA posts:
Obama for America is coming, Day of Service, Collecting support pledges, OFA: listening and learning, Health care and playing defense, Health care reform pressure.


Darlene said...

I feel like a voice crying in the wilderness. I am so disappointed in Obama's failure to use the bully pulpit to push hard for Congress to pass the Senate bill now. It isn't what we want, but it's certainly better than nothing.

Kay Dennison said...

I'm not certain that I want that bill but I need it!!!!