Progressives Ready To Be Disappointed By OFA

Fears that the group will back a grand bargain and spark a dark money “arms race.”

President Barack Obama smiles after meeting with the House Republican Conference members on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 13, 2013. Obama addressed House members about trying to find solutions to the government’s fiscal cutbacks, gun control, and immigration. Larry Downing / Reuters

WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Wednesday, President Obama will address a Washington gathering of high-dollar donors to Organizing For Action, the group formed from the remnants of Obama’s 2012 campaign. Outside the event, in the city and across the country, progressives will be keeping a wary eye on the proceedings.

For now, the organized left is optimistic. In theory, OFA can bring immense resources to bear on issues like immigration and gun control, putting wind in the sails of the smaller progressive groups already fighting for reform. But there’s another side to that coin, progressive activists worry — should Obama support a budget package that includes, say, cuts to entitlements, the left may find itself battling OFA as it pushes Obama’s agenda.

“I’m quite excited about the debut of Organizing For [Action],” Becky Bond, political director at CREDO, a grassroots progressive group that has staged protests at Obama events in the past. She said OFA could be a “gamechanger” on gun control, and praised the group’s executive director, Jon Carson.

But behind her optimism about OFA was a wariness about what the group will do in sticky situations.

“If what [OFA] does is empower all the people that worked for, volunteered for, and voted for President Obama to have a say in policy fights then I think that’s a really great thing. Because they wanted people in power who weren’t going to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits,” she said. “What does OFA do if the president sends a budget compromise to Congress that includes cuts to Social Security benefits through mechanism of chained CPI, which will limit Social Security benefits in the future? I think that’s going to be a real test.”

There are other potential legacies for OFA leaving a bad taste in progressive mouths. One liberal operative based outside the beltway complained that by taking unlimited donations — albeit with self-imposed corporate donation restrictions and donor disclosure rules — OFA was making it open season for politicians of all stripes to set up massive dark money machines to support their agendas.

“They’re setting a precedent that the GOP will follow. There’s nothing to stop [Speaker] Boehner from starting a C-4,” the operative said. “It’s the next step in an arms race, and the potential for corruption is really problematic.”

Other progressives have worried that Obama’s speech to a group of high-dollar OFA donors signals that the group will offer access to the president for money. On Wednesday, Democracy 21 and the Campaign Legal Center released a letter comparing Obama’s OFA speech to “Nixon selling ambassador posts, Clinton selling a night in the Lincoln Bedroom, or Bush selling black-tie dinners at the White House.”

But that pay-for-access worry only works if OFA can find donors willing to pony up the cash. One California-based prominent Democratic donor was dubious that OFA would find many of the reported $500,000 top-end donors the group looking for.

“Absent the urgency of an election, that’s hard,” the donor said. But he was optimistic about OFA and its potential.

“There aren’t a lot of six-figure donors with immigration as a top priority,” he said, citing one example. OFA can help bring those big donors to bear on issues that don’t always get lavished with money, he said.

For their part, OFA and the White House have repeatedly denied there’s a pay-for-access scheme at OFA. “There’s going to be no opportunity to lobby the president through this organization,” OFA adviser Ben LaBolt told CNN.

There’s also a worry that OFA will strip-mine the volunteer base, leaving progressives without their most precious resource. One D.C.-based progressive organizer said fears that OFA will hog all the volunteers other groups might try to recruit is floating around on the left.

“That’s where the biggest chance at friction lies,” he said. “People worried that volunteers will get sucked up by OFA.”

But the operative said OFA could also keep people engaged who otherwise wouldn’t be involved after the 2012 election on the political stage.

“On the flip side, the thing most folks recognize is that there is a core of Obama loyalists who wouldn’t be active without OFA, who will stay engaged because of it,” he said.

In the end, the D.C.-based progressive predicted, OFA may become a surrogate punching bag for liberals upset with something Obama does.

“I don’t think OFA will publicly go against the left. But the left will probably publicly go against OFA as an extension of the president and White House,” he said.

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