Despite Hype, Obama’s Email List Won’t Be a Second-Term Game-Changer

OFA played a huge role putting Obama over the top in the campaign—but it’s unlikely to play out the same way in Washington, reports Matt Taylor.

11.24.12 9:45 AM ET

As it did in 2008, the Obama operation rolled on Election Day this year—making the president the first Democrat since FDR to twice claim an outright majority of the popular vote. But despite suggestions from the administration that it will use its potent supporters list as a second-term “game-changer,” the activist left is fearful it will again be kept in the field and out of the halls of power.

Obama’s vaunted campaign machine, “OFA”—short for “Obama for America” during election season, and “Organizing for America” when the president is trying to pass his agenda—made a point of staying active after his victory, sending  supporters an email Wednesday detailing the president’s plan to avert the fiscal cliff of automatic spending cuts and tax increases at the end of the year.

The question is if this time OFA will convert its success on the trail—where the operation got 4.4 million donors to contribute $690 million—to the slog of governing. Campaign manager Jim Messina suggested this week that the machinery will be kept engaged, but hedged when asked just how robust its role will be in the coming fights in Washington.

Even as Democratic politicians and operatives also lobby for access to his huge database of donors, voters, and volunteers for future campaigns, critics on the left are still embittered about how supporters were cut out and grassroots momentum lost during Obama’s first term. They point to the president’s backing away from a cap-and-trade system to control pollution, his decision not to break up big banks or enact “cramdown” measures to reduce the principal owed on mortgages by millions of struggling borrowers and what they see as a host of lost opportunities in Obama’s first two years, when Democrats controlled all branches of government.

“Deactivating OFA was just one small part of an overall policy disaster,” says Matt Stoller, a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and former financial services staffer to Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL). “Obama wanted to run a conservative technocratic administration on behalf of Wall Street, and he did. And inequality is now at record highs, higher than it was under [George W.] Bush. In terms of superficial notions like electoral politics, it was successful for Obama. In terms of mouths fed, poverty alleviated, and justice, it has been horrific.”

A senior official from both of Obama’s presidential campaigns contested that narrative, arguing that Team Obama was unique precisely because they made certain not to allow their organization to fall apart—though conceding that the operation was less than central to legislative strategy in the first term. The official added that several of Obama’s top staffers credit OFA with a critical role in pushing his signature health-care law across the finish line by encouraging backers to call their member of Congress as a show of support when that vote came down to the wire.

But for most of Obama’s first term, OFA was largely silent and disengaged—a striking contrast with its apparently decisive role in pushing Obama across the 50 percent mark in battleground states like Florida and Ohio a few weeks ago.

“The mistake was not keeping their core constituency together and giving them something to do besides responding to text messages,” says Michael Kazin, a social movement historian at Georgetown University. Once Obama was in the White House, supporters might receive the occasional note reminding them about an upcoming vote in Congress or the next Oval Office address, but there was surprisingly little emphasis on “the fierce urgency of now.”

Despite his background in community organizing, Obama resolved early on to work with Washington on its own terms, from the inside out, say critics on the left, which made a fissure of some kind with OFA inevitable.

“He let it go because its style and manner were unassimilable into his framework of undertaking normal politics,” said Todd Gitlin, the Columbia professor who was president of Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960s. “If he had summoned the hordes to the stadiums, who knows what he might have been able to do?”

Which brings us back to FDR. Though the 22nd Amendment prevents Obama from trying to match Roosevelt’s unmatched 4–0 record on the national ballot, liberals are expressing cautious optimism that the second term will be better from their perspective than his first—and maybe even more Rooseveltian in its populist punch. That’s certainly what was suggested by the tenor of Obama’s reelection campaign, which was essentially an extended infomercial about how Mitt Romney was the second coming of Gordon Gekko, the shameless plutocrat from Oliver Stone’s 1987 classic, Wall Street.

But the question remains whether OFA will be “merely a backdrop to a policy decision that’s already been made, a negotiated deal like the one that’s coming up with the whole fiscal issue,” says Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus. If the vast campaign apparatus has the potential to be a second term game-changer, right now it appears just as likely to prove a convenient tool to get recalcitrant liberals to accept the unthinkable.