Obama's grassroots volunteers lost battle, but are they preparing for war?

Last week, I warned readers to be on the lookout for Obama volunteers knocking on their doors over the weekend. According to news reports, it's extremely unlikely that anyone I or you know actually saw one of these people.

First Question: Who Are They?
The group doing the organizing is called "Organizing for America" and is an arm of the Democratic National Committee. It's an evolution of the "fifty state strategy" of the campaign's Obama for America. As Ari Berman of The Nation wrote in mid-December last year,
Obama's advisers are debating whether to create a separate organization to house the valuable assets from the campaign--particularly the coveted 13 million-name e-mail list, which is likely to grow--or to fold the Obama network into a quasi-independent entity within the DNC (think of a vast, Obama-centric MoveOn.org, tentatively known as Obama for America 2.0).
Obviously, the second scenario is what happened, and the new OFA is run by David Plouffe, who also ran Obama's campaign. The volunteers who are doing the outreach are a subset of the same 13 million-name e-mail list that was touted as one of Obama's keys to victory.

Second Question: Does Obama Know Anything About It?
Short answer: yes. According to CNN,
The first priority for organizers is the president's proposed budget. This petition drive is part of an effort by the White House and Democrats to help push it. In a video e-mailed to supporters this week, Obama lobbied for it, acknowledging that "passing this budget won't be easy" and saying "that is where you come in."

He urged supporters "to head out this Saturday" and "stay involved in the days ahead" by writing letters and making phone calls.

Third Question: How Effective Was Last Weekend's Effort?
Reports vary on the number of canvassing groups that mobilized, how many total volunteers went out, and what the nature of their activities was. NPR quoted a DNC spokesman, who said "there are 1,000 door-to-door canvassing efforts scheduled 'in all 50 states.'" The Nation said "more than 1,100 canvasses were scheduled in 50 states." CNN reported even higher numbers, saying "volunteers met in 1,200 to 1,300 locations across the country, organizers said."

Estimated numbers of actual volunteers at each of these meetings ranged from 8 to "nearly two dozen". Many of the groups just met and talked with each other, but didn't actually go out and knock on doors. The CNN piece described it this way, "In some, participants discussed the president's agenda. In others, they set out to homes, subway stations and farmers' markets," and said that one meeting in Washington D.C. drew "about 16 people," and of those, "about half of that group set out to seek signatures at subway stops."

Still, organizers claimed that "supporters knocked on an estimated 1 million doors in all 50 states." Even accepting this number -- though it's difficult to tell with any accuracy due to all the spin -- most of the articles linked here noted that the grassroots effort was a bust.
President Barack Obama's army of canvassers fanned out across the nation over the weekend to drum up support for his $3.55 trillion budget, but they had no noticeable impact on members of Congress, who on Monday said they were largely unaware of the effort. "News to me," said Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, a House Budget Committee member, of the canvassing.
Fourth Question: Why?
Commenter Brendan astutely asked,
What I'm wondering is, why are they bothering with this campaign? They've shown that they're willing to ram these spending bills down our throats, even when (as was true with the bailout bill) 80% of the phone calls to congressmen are against passing it.
Stated reasons for the effort vary, but in most stories they revolved around drumming up calls to Congress members and collecting signatures in support of passing the budget. As was shown, this was largely a failure. But it's important to remember that the vote on the budget won't be for weeks or months.

Instead, this effort was likely just a trial balloon and a field exercise. From The Nation:
More importantly, it was an opportunity for OFA to get the rust off, keep its volunteers active (and hopefully recruit more) and see how voters in communities across the country were responding to Obama's agenda. ... OFA, a subset of the Democratic National Committee, is gearing up to hire field organizers across the country who will constitute the next phase of the DNC's modified 50-state strategy.

... Asking people to sign a form is a relatively inconsequential task, but OFA wants to prep its network for the legislative battles and elections in 2010 and 2012 that lay ahead. [bold added]

In the title of this post, I asked "are they preparing for war?" The answer appears to be "yes." So even though you may not have witnessed any of the canvassing efforts last Saturday, don't be surprised if you haven't heard the last of them.

I previously compared OFA to a brownshirt movement, but that's an overstatement. Right now, it's essentially an e-mail list, mostly made up of people who are no longer active because they signed up to help a political campaign, not push for legislation. But the concern over this effort by Obama and the DNC to continue and expand the community organizing model still lingers for at least two reasons:
  1. The whole thing smells like a populist pressure group doing the bidding of the executive. It would be one thing if it was truly grassroots, organized and run by regular citizens to speak out on issues--no matter that I vehemently disagree with their ideas, I just as strongly support free speech. But this is a centralized, organized effort by one branch of government to pressure another branch. It's a troubling thought.
  2. There is a big difference between standing at a subway station or in front of an Ikea and asking people to sign pledges, and going door-to-door with names and addresses, lists and laptops. The first is completely voluntary and anonymous if a person so desires. Simply walk on by if you don't want them to know anything about you. But the second is anything but anonymous. How far of a stretch is it to think that vocally negative responses might be ticked down on a list? What are people to do if they disagree with Obama's policies and are questioned at their front door? They are no longer anonymous, and may wonder about the consequences of saying the "wrong" thing.
Are we at the point where I think the administration will be compiling blacklists? No. But the machinery being put into place combined with the breathtaking scope of disastrous actions already taken (nationalizations, power-grabs, you name it), and the prospect of prolonged economic hardship in which government and the people seem ready and willing to throw principle out the window, just when they need it most... It is worrisome. Most worrisome.


brendan said...

Thanks for following-up on this story, C. It gave me a little comfort to find out that this little campaign was largely ineffective. I felt pretty good until I read this:

"...this is a centralized, organized effort by one branch of government to pressure another branch."

I hadn't considered that, and the implications are unsettling if it ever works. Are you aware of a precedent for this in the US?

C. August said...

Brendan, I'm not aware of a precedent, but I'm equally interested to know if something like it has ever happened. I'm guessing, "no."

It's disturbing on many levels

Anonymous said...

What about Woodrow Wilson's "Minute Men" who were kind of like Toastmasters on Facist Steroids and the Blue Eagle enforcers who were Fascist Thugs, although probably not on steroids. (As far as historical precedents.)
C. Andrew

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

No, perhaps this group on this campaign is not even remotely like brownshirts. But I worry, because those "protestors" that ACORN rounded up and bussed to the homes of AIG executives are more like brownshirts, and the tactic of threatening a person's family and property, even implicitly looks a good deal like Kristallnacht. I have had the opportunity to speak to people who lived through the rise of National Socialism in Germany, and they all describe events like the above as "the beginning" of the evil to come.
And one of those specifically compared the recent Congressional demonization of AIG execs and their families to Kristallnacht.

So adding that to this door-to-door campaign, and we have reason to be uneasy.