Why President Obama Isn’t Using His Most Powerful Weapon — Again

The stakes in “fiscal cliff” talks are high — so where’s the e-mail list? So far, it’s 2009 all over again.

President Obama and his victorious campaign team have signaled that they won’t repeat what many Democratic activists view as the signal mistake of 2009: failing to deploy the campaign’s massive grassroots network, and particularly its e-mail list, to help govern.

But the early indications are that, despite feisty e-mails and tough talk, Obama is again choosing private negotiations with Congressional leaders over public pressure on legislators. The most important indicator is that the president has not taken the one step that really matters: asking his millions of supporters to deluge their local members of Congress with demands that they pass the president’s policy agenda.

Obama tiptoed in that direction in 2009 before being promptly shut down by furious Democratic leaders. But soon after this year’s election, his campaign suggested it would turn history’s most powerful online political machine toward policy: “People want to be involved in supporting the president’s agenda in the next four years,” said campaign manager Jim Messina.

“I am pledging to do a better job — even than we did in the first term — in making sure you guys stay involved and that you know exactly what we’re doing. That we’re giving you guys clear direction and talking points in terms of how we keep mobilizing across the country,” Obama himself told supporters on a post-election conference call.

Indeed, people in Obama’s circle have said for months that he doesn’t intend to repeat what are seen as strategic and structural mistakes from his first term. And they note that the first term did include some more aggressive online organizing that Congress would have liked — some of it late in the health care fight, and some in the battle over restructuring student loans.

But the only action the campaign has asked of supporters on the issue of the moment — the taxing and spending negotiations consuming Washington — is easy and nonconfrontational. The campaign e-mailed supporters a graphic outlining Obama’s plan to end the Bush tax cuts only for the wealthiest Americans, and to cut some spending. The only demand: “Share … and spread the word on Facebook and Twitter.”

The alternative is technically little harder. Obama has many of his supporters’ home addresses and the zip codes of more; advocacy groups large and small constantly send e-mails naming the local congressman and asking supporters to call. This is the path Obama has chosen not to follow.

A White House official didn’t respond to inquiries about why they haven’t deployed the campaign’s massive e-mail list. But insiders and observers cite several, overlapping reasons. First are legal constraints on what a campaign committee can do post-election, and the new entity will have to be careful in its formal reorganization. “There is a desire to create an ongoing OFA enterprise, but a lot of legal questions are open about how that is organized,” said a Democrat close to the White House.

A campaign official told BuzzFeed the campaign has not yet made the decision on whether or not to deploy it, and that the White House is sensitive to the perception that an aggressive campaign would not be seen by budget negotiators on all sides as being in the spirit of good faith talks. The official also said the White House realizes how much members of Congress dislike the flood of e-mails and calls Obama can generate — but that if talks break down, the president will likely deploy his powerful online machine. Indeed, Obama’s brain trust is “sorting out its thinking on these questions,” as Micah Sifry, a leading proponent of an “outside” strategy, wrote last week.

But there are also some reasons to think that Obama will ultimately repeat the first-term pattern. Republicans involved in “fiscal cliff” talks, meanwhile, simply downplay the list’s power. The group that gathered to support Obama, they argue, didn’t sign up for four years of inside battles.

“If there’s one thing we’ve learned over the past four years, it’s that his list is very effective when it comes to voter turnout, but a complete dud when it comes to firing up the masses on policy debates,” said one senior Republican official.

Progressives on Obama’s left flank make a different argument: Obama’s agenda is simply further to the center than many of his most devoted supporters want or imagine, and his moderate goals are hard to organize around. Obama demoralized liberals and labor unions (the most organized element of the Democratic base) by preemptively dropping his demand for a public option for health care in the 2009 negotiations on that subject.

“They’re going to have the same problem they did in ‘09 when they started leaving ‘public option’ out of their health care e-mails. What they’re pushing is at odds with what their base wants,” said Jane Hamsher, the founder of the combative liberal blog Firedoglake, whose present view is that Democrats are “dying to knife their base.”

“Obama wants a ‘grand bargain’ with ‘entitlement reform,’” she said. “The base does not want to cut Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid.”

A top Democrat echoed elements of that analysis.

In the meantime, some of Obama’s allies are moving ahead with their own plans. A new online organizing outfit launched by former Obama aides including the actor Kal Penn, TheAction.org, offers a glimpse at the sort of aggressive organizing some Democrats would like to see.

But they’d like to see The Action’s voice given a real megaphone — preferably, an e-mail list whose recipients number well into the seven figures.

Correction: In an earlier version of this article, a quote given by a Republican official was attributed to a Democrat.

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