Organizing for America: The Democratic Party’s Community Organizing Campaign to Promote Barack Obama
By Matthew Vadum (Organization Trends, May 2010 PDF here)
Summary: Organizing for America (OFA) is a phony grassroots campaign run by the Democratic National Committee that proposes to replicate the community organizing techniques Barack Obama learned from the teachings of his fellow Chicagoan, Saul Alinsky. The Democrats recognize that the days when political parties could rest easy between elections are long gone. OFA is a permanent campaign apparatus dedicated to perpetuating the mystique of President Obama’s leadership.
Liberals responded with howls of indignation when Rudy Giuliani mocked community organizers at the 2008 Republican convention.
The former New York mayor said that Barack Obama “worked as a community organizer.”
“What?” Giuliani said as he burst out laughing. Speaking over a boisterous crowd, he continued, “He worked—I said—I said—OK, OK. Maybe this is the first problem on the resume. He worked as a community organizer.”
GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, also got laughs when she mocked Obama’s work with ACORN and various radical groups. “I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a ‘community organizer,’ except that you have actual responsibilities,” Palin quipped.
Conservatives roared approval, but now the Left aims to laugh last.
Conservatives are justifiably suspicious of Obama-style community organizing, so it’s no surprise that Organizing for America (OFA) is the kind of group that makes those on the Right uneasy.
Prior to 2008, few Americans had ever heard of community organizing. What exactly is community organizing? In the sense that President Obama, the Community Organizer-in-Chief, uses the term, it’s not about church bake sales, picking up litter, Little League or the PTA.
Obama-style community organizing is anti-capitalist agitation. It’s about that nebulous Marxist concept of “social justice.” It’s about making people angry so they push for change. It artificially creates pressure for government spending on whatever happens to be fashionable in leftist circles that day.
A Permanent Campaign to Promote the Party of Barack Obama
The new group Organizing for America (OFA) aims to make community organizing hip and mainstream. OFA is an outgrowth of the president’s 2008 presidential campaign, and its name is adapted from Obama for America, the name of the Obama campaign organization.
However, OFA is “more than a spinoff of Mr. Obama’s presidential campaign—it’s housed at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) but is free to let the Party do the political dirty work, and it keeps his enthusiastic supporters engaged, active and primed for his re-election bid,” according to the Washington Times. OFA tries to cross Howard Dean-style activism with community organizing. It seeks to improve on the Internet-based success of Dean’s insurgent 2004 presidential campaign that propelled a then-unknown governor from a sparsely populated state into the Democrats’ frontrunner.
Dean, who served four years as DNC chairman after his unsuccessful presidential bid, said that he pushed his party for a long time to embrace the idea of a “permanent campaign.”
“We now have one, and you have to have that in order to win,” Dean said, adding he’s a “big fan” of OFA.
OFA was created because the White House cannot legally use the 13 million e-mail addresses that the campaign compiled in 2008. The Democratic National Committee set “the grassroots movement” up as a DNC project to continue to proselytize on Barack Obama’s behalf between elections.
The name Organizing for America is disconcerting to conservatives because it evokes images of Saul Alinsky, the radical left-wing father of community organizing. A Marxist Machiavelli, Alinsky dedicated his classic activism manual, “Rules for Radicals,” to Lucifer, whom he called the “first radical known to man.” The purpose of the book was to help activists take power from the “haves” and redistribute it to the “have-nots.”
Alinsky was a Chicagoan who elevated local-level brass knuckles political agitation to an art form. Although he died in 1972, Alinsky was a significant influence on Obama, who searched for a vocation and found it in community organizing after moving to the Windy City in 1985. Alinsky believed in “rubbing raw the sores of discontent.” He prescribed the tactics and defined the goals of community organizing. Among his “rules”: “Keep the pressure on. Never let up” and “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.”
Organizing for America exists to relentlessly press for change. “The advantage of Organizing for America is that it can be devoted exclusively to a particular issue, 100 million percent,” said DNC communications director Brad Woodhouse. The New Republic magazine describes OFA as “an Internet version of the top-down political machines built by Richard Daley in Chicago or Boss Tweed in New York. The difference (other than technology) was that this new machine would rely on ideological loyalty, not patronage.”
When Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize, he blasted out a mass e-mailing through OFA serving notice that he would use the surprise award to push his extreme agenda.
After acknowledging he didn’t deserve the prize, Obama announced he would nonetheless “accept this award as a call to action.” He said the prize “has not just been used to honor specific achievement; it’s also been used as a means to give momentum to a set of causes.”
Organizing for Obama
DNC spokesman Hari Sevugan has said OFA’s primary purpose is “to advance the president’s agenda, but when there are good candidates that can advance a community and support his agenda, we work for them.”
OFA pushes the president’s legislative agenda but it also dabbles in state politics. Last year it was involved in a race in New York’s 23rdDistrict, where it supported Democrat Scott Murphy over liberal Republican Dede Scozzafava and Conservative Party nominee Doug Hoffman. This fall, it involved itself in the Virginia gubernatorial contest, championing Democrat Creigh Deeds against Republican Bob McDonnell. (Murphy and McDonnell won their respective races.)
Organizing for America is not subject to IRS nonprofit regulations because it has no independent legal status outside the DNC. DNC financial filings disclose little about its structure and day-to-day operations. The party’s spending on the project is not separately accounted for in public disclosures, so its actual scope is difficult to determine.
OFA likes it that way.
In its activities, OFA is indistinguishable from the 2008 Obama presidential election campaign. It buttresses and reinforces everything Barack Obama does, echoing him, lionizing him and pushing his legislative agenda.
“We’ve never had a political leader who has continued their organizing while in office like this at this scale,” former Washington director of MoveOn.org Tom Matzzie said in January.
Promoting an Obama Cult
Some say the group has a cultish feel to it, a sentiment that has only grown more widespread since it was revealed in the summer that the Obama White House tried to use the National Endowment for the Arts to generate art supportive of the president’s policy objectives.
Of course, every administration is filled with starry-eyed true believers who think their president is the best ever, but there seem to be so many more fanatics in the Obama administration.
“It’s kind of eerie,” said David Norcross, chairman of the Republican National Lawyers Association, of OFA. “It’s creepy.”
“It’s not a permanent political apparatus. It’s a permanent personal apparatus built around one man, meant to reinforce his cult of personality. It has precious little to do with Democrats.”
The OFA Web site’s web address seems to reinforce Norcross’s sentiment: www.BarackObama.com was also the address of the presidential campaign Web site.
“If I were a Democrat, I would be concerned about this,” said Norcross. “With both Bushes, Clinton, Reagan, it was about the party. This is about Obama. And what happens after him? Is this an attempt to put together a movement very different from the Democratic Party and to take it over and to supplant it?”
Whatever it is, most Democrats don’t seem too concerned about it.
An OFA employee told me there’s never been any intention of making the group a permanent component of the Democratic Party. “We haven’t thought it through that far. The goal right now is to promote President Obama’s agenda.”
Contradicting Howard Dean, he said OFA is “not a campaign apparatus; it’s a continuation of the grassroots effort.” The group currently has staff in 48 states and plans to have staff in place in all 50 states by the end of the year, he said.
Another Democratic source told the Washington Times that when OFA was created some Democratic officials worried that it would attack more moderate Democratic lawmakers.
Those concerns were well-founded. Last summer, OFA marshaled its considerable resources against fellow Democrats. The group ran health care ads in eight Republican-leaning battleground states in order to press wavering Democrats to support the Obama health care nationalization agenda.
Mitch Stewart, a former official in the Obama campaign, heads OFA. In 2006 he was the coordinated campaign manager for Minnesota’s Democratic Farm Labor Party, when Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D) won her race. In 2004, he was a field director for Sen. Tom Daschle, (D-S.D.) and a regional field director in Iowa for former Sen. John Edwards’ (D-N.C.) presidential run.
OFA does not seem to be a separate fundraising mechanism for the Democrats—at least not yet. As of Oct. 26, the DNC had raised $61.8 million for the 2010 election cycle, which is below the $68.8 million the Republican National Committee raised during the same period, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
OFA Modeled on MoveOn.org
OFA’s activism relies heavily on the Internet and draws its inspiration from MoveOn.org, the successful model of meet-up activism and point-and-click fundraising. MoveOn, which continually pushes the Democratic Party to the left, was created in 1998 as a defensive attempt to build grassroots opposition to the Republican effort to impeach President Bill Clinton. After 2000 it became a vicious opponent of President George W. Bush. Today, the campaigns waged by OFA and MoveOn.org often overlap. Sometimes both groups produce mass e-mails that arrive in members’ e-mail boxes within minutes of each other.
Many of the blogs on the OFA website read like a fawning “fanzine” complete with large beautiful high-resolution photos of President Obama and a smiling First Family.
Some blog posts delve into substantive policy issues, but others show the president looking commanding, poised and even heroic. One could say it’s Vanity Fair magazine in digital form.
Although the community blog pages written by OFA members do not officially represent the organization, they’re a window into what grassroots members really think.
Recent posts are titled “Rush Limbaugh Is A Racist” and “Obama Will Be One of the Greatest (and Most Loved) American Presidents.” One post titled “‘Going Rouge’ to Come out Same Day as Palin’s Book” mocks the former Alaska governor and her new memoir, “Going Rogue.” The item promises that the rival book will examine “the nightmarish prospect of her continuing to dominate the nation’s political scene.”
Another blog post embraces Michael Moore’s movie “Capitalism: A Love Story,” and his Marxist manifesto for bankrupting America. Moore wants to halt all home evictions, extend Medicare to all Americans, provide 100 percent public financing of elections and nationalize the energy sector.
OFA recruits college students to “build support for President Obama’s agenda” and earn college credit while advocating for “change,” World Net Daily has reported.
“By becoming a National Organizing Intern, you’ll be part of the grassroots effort to make the change we fought for a reality in 2009 and beyond,” said an OFA notice posted on social-networking websites. “You’ll learn core organizing principles that are crucial for any campaign and play an important role in building our organization in your state.”
The notice continues: “President Obama describes his time as a community organizer by saying: ‘It was the best education I ever had, because I learned in those neighborhoods that when ordinary people come together, they can achieve extraordinary things.’ This is your chance to get that same education.”
“If you’re passionate about making sure every American has quality health care, reviving our economy, and building a clean energy future, don’t miss this great opportunity. No previous experience is needed in order to apply.”
Health Care Activism
Last August, as tea party mania spread across the nation, OFA decided it needed to fight back to save ObamaCare from the fate of HillaryCare in 1994.
OFA hosted an online forum with Obama that was billed as an opportunity to “update supporters on the fight to pass real health insurance reform.” This Internet-based pep rally featured then-Virginia Gov. and current DNC Chairman Tim Kaine and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.)
Viewers were advised that, since June 6, OFA volunteers had organized massive grassroots support for health care reform. The group claimed more than 1.5 million OFA members organized 11,906 local events and had made 64,912 local congressional office visits in one week. It bragged that its members outnumbered protesters at town hall meetings.
During the online event, Obama attacked the Bush administration with the rhetoric of class warfare:
“We’re here because you believed that after an era of selfishness and greed, that we could reclaim a sense of responsibility and a sense that we have obligations to each other not just here in Washington but all across the country. You believed that instead of growing inequality, we could restore a sense of fairness and balance to our economic life and create lasting growth and prosperity. You believed that at a time of war and turmoil, we could stand strong against our enemies, but also stand firmly for our ideals and reach out to the rest of the world and describe to them what America is about and how we can forge together a world of common interests and common concerns.”
OFA copied a publicity-grabbing formula from MoveOn.org by creating a contest called the “Health Reform Video Challenge.” OFA challenged young filmmakers to produce the best 30-second TV ad calling for government-run health care.
One contestant created an ad showing three images: an overturned car burning on a highway, a woman drowning, and a raging fire. The narrator asks the viewers if they would be willing to help the victims of accidents, floods and fires. Referring to a bogus study by socialized-medicine supporters, it ends with this text: “You could save 44,000 Americans each year who die because they have no health care. Support a public option.”
Judges for the contest included Obama campaign manager David Plouffe, and the popular actors Rosario Dawson, Kate Walsh and John Cho. Cho, who played “Harold” in the hit movie “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle,” was perhaps recommended by Kal Penn, a White House outreach official who played alongside him as “Kumar” in the comedic movie about the pothead duo’s quest for fast food.
OFA also makes a point of lashing out at opponents. One mass e-mailing asked OFA supporters to call their U.S. senators on Sept. 11, now known as Patriot Day in honor of those killed in the terrorist attacks eight years ago.
The OFA message included this inflammatory statement: “All 50 States are coordinating in this—as we fight back against our own Right-Wing Domestic Terrorists who are subverting the American Democratic Process, whipped to a frenzy by their Fox Propaganda Network ceaselessly re-seizing power for their treacherous leaders.”
The Heritage Foundation’s Rory Cooper was incensed. “Many Americans took off work and sacrificed family time this past August to attend congressional town halls, where they voiced opposition to a government-run overhaul of their personal health care choices,” Cooper wrote.
Those town hall participants hand-painted signs, picked up their children and drove to their local church or school gymnasium “for valuable lessons in community organizing and democracy,” he wrote. In gratitude for their civic engagement “they were called names, labeled as ‘too organized’ or ‘un-American,’ and likened to mobs, Nazis and Fascists. And now President Obama’s team has designated September 11 as the day to liken conservatives to Al Qaeda terrorists.”
Fighting the “ACORN Smear”
OFA continually tries to cover up President Obama’s connection to ACORN, the acronym for the notorious community organizing group, Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now.
During the 2008 campaign, as the ACORN issue flared up, the Obama campaign was desperate to distance their candidate from his previous employment with Project Vote, an ACORN affiliate.
OFA created a “Fight the Smears” Web site, which last year published lengthy, untruthful and unconvincing refutations of Obama’s ties to the advocacy group. Anyone with access to the Internet can find proof of the President’s ties to ACORN in a few seconds, but Obama’s webmasters have repeatedly referred to “ACORN rumors” as they attempt to fine-tune and obscure the president’s long history with ACORN.
Last year OFA seemed to have succeeded in muting interest in ACORN when the Fox network’s “Glenn Beck Program” and the online BigGovernment.com. revealed sordid undercover sting videos engineered by conservative activists James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles. The videos showed ACORN workers blatantly advising O’Keefe and Giles—who were posing as a pimp and prostitute—how to hide money obtained from illegal activities. The videos shocked Americans, members of Congress demanded an investigation and a cut-off of ACORN’s federal grants, and the Census Bureau ended its plans to use ACORN workers.
The facts are that Barack Obama’s ties to ACORN go back to at least 1992 when he directed Illinois voter registration efforts for Project Vote. The voter registration push helped elect Carol Moseley Braun to the U.S. Senate, where her single term was plagued by serious allegations of corruption. Obama also helped train ACORN leaders and represented ACORN in court.
The campaign got lucky when most of the media—led by the agenda-setting New York Times—responded with a deafening silence to news of Obama’s involvement with America’s most infamous activist network.
That involvement was no secret. At an ACORN-sponsored forum in late 2007, Obama vowed that he would meet with ACORN and other members of the radical advocacy community in the first 100 days of his presidency. He said: “Before I even get inaugurated, during the transition, we’re going to be calling all of you in to help us shape the agenda. We’re going to be having meetings all across the country with community organizations so that you have input into the agenda for the next presidency of the United States of America.”
A month earlier, Obama said: “I’ve been fighting alongside ACORN on issues you care about my entire career. Even before I was an elected official, when I ran Project Vote voter registration drives in Illinois, ACORN was smack dab in the middle of it, and we appreciate your work.”
And during the primaries, the late blogger Nancy Armstrong discovered that the campaign paid $832,598 to Citizens Services Inc., an ACORN affiliate, for get-out-the-vote activities. The expenditures were originally listed in campaign finance filings as “staging, sound and lighting,” but when the campaign was caught lying, it quickly issued a “correction” acknowledging the money went for primary get-out-the-vote activities.
While the media was interested, albeit briefly, in Obama’s ties to his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a preacher of fiery anti-American sermons, reporters showed little interest in the ACORN connection. Despite ACORN’s track record of crime and corruption, journalists offered a collective yawn.
But candidate Obama took no chances. During the campaign he went all-out to deny his association with ACORN. In September 2008, when ACORN got a mountain of bad publicity over allegations of nationwide election fraud, Obama supporters tried to confuse the issue. They said the senator was never an ACORN community organizer and denied that Project Vote, the voter registration drive Obama ran in 1992, was a part of ACORN. The campaign went into the political equivalent of DEFCON-1 in treating as blasphemy the simple facts about his ACORN ties.
Project Vote officials engaged in legalistic hairsplitting. Aided by the liberal Huffington Post and its George Soros-backed allies at Media Matters for America, they conveniently claimed that their group was not closely aligned with ACORN until after Obama had left it. Incredibly, most reporters took Project Vote at its word.
They shouldn’t have. ACORN is well-known for relying on the notion of “plausible deniability.” Its byzantine structure allows it to take credit when its affiliates do well while disavowing ties when they get into trouble.
Can Organizing for America Succeed?
OFA’s claim to replicate the work of community organizers on a national scale is implausible because community organizing is local by definition. In theory, it’s also supposed to be a participatory democracy, not a DNC project dictating activities to local communities from on high.
But that’s not what’s happening at OFA. Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes worked to convert the Obama campaign website, MyBarackObama.com, into Organizing for America. He criticizes the Democratic Party for meddling with OFA and under-staffing it.
“It didn’t remain an independent organization, which I think it should have. In the language of the campaign, we saw a movement of people who were hungry for change. They were much less concerned with the Democratic Party.” (TheDailyBeast.com March 18, 2010)
Labor organizer-turned-Harvard academic Marshall Ganz agrees that the OFA model is flawed. Ganz trained state organizers for the Obama campaign. “It’s much more an instrument of mobilizing the bottom to serve the top than organizing the bottom to participate in shaping the direction of the top,” he told the liberal New Republic.
David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report agrees. He doesn’t share the view of OFA supporters who regard it as an unprecedented operation in American politics. “The operation is essentially designed to keep Democratic enthusiasm percolating while Obama tries to rise above the fray to pass an agenda,” Wasserman told me. “I think what’s historic is that Obama compiled 13 million e-mail addresses. Bush was able to compile millions of e-mails as well, and those e-mail addresses were useful to Republicans politically.”
Michael Barone, senior political analyst at the Washington Examiner and co-author of the “Almanac of American Politics,” seems even less impressed by OFA. “What strikes me as fascinating is the lack of energy and enthusiasm that I perceive from this group and the vivid contrast from what you saw in the Obama campaign in 2008 and the way that they were able to gin up all this support, enthusiasm of people around the country,” Barone said in an interview.
“They don’t seem to be nearly matching the spontaneous enthusiasm of the tea party groups of these angry people at town hall meetings,” said Barone.
One can only hope Barone is right.
Matthew Vadum is Editor of Organization Trends. This profile is based on an article published in the December issue of Townhall magazine.