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What happened to Obama's massive network of grassroots activists?

Tea partiers, townhall protesters, Texas secessionists--for the past few months, grassroots organizing has seemed to be mostly the domain of the right. And for a period this summer, they (okay, not the Texas secessionists, but the others) appeared to be successfully tugging the national debate in their direction. As conservative activists, organized by groups such as FreedomWorks and encouraged by the likes of Glenn Beck, poured into the streets, moderate senators began to waver on health care, President Obama's approval ratings dipped, and momentum for reform seemed to stall.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. The reason was Organizing for America. Last year, after winning the presidency, Obama decided to keep intact the backbone of his stunningly efficient, innovative campaign. Previous presidents had outsourced their activism to interest groups; Obama was going to create his own. OFA was supposed to be a new kind of permanent campaign: a grassroots network wielding some 13 million email addresses to mobilize former volunteers on behalf of the administration's agenda (and keep them engaged for 2012). "We've never had a political leader who has continued their organizing while in office like this at this scale," Tom Matzzie, former Washington director of MoveOn, told NPR in January.

As right-wing protesters dominated the news this summer, it would have seemed the perfect opportunity for Obama's much-touted organizers to drown out the conservatives with some coordinated agitation of their own. But they barely made a ripple. Where were they? And how could such a formidable grassroots operation--having just put Obama in office--fall quiet so quickly?

The morning after the election, some 10,000 organizers dialed into a conference call with President-elect Obama, who told them that they would be needed for fights to come. But within the Obama camp, there was disagreement about how, exactly, their services ought to be used. OFA could become a freestanding organization that would advocate independently for the president's agenda. Or it could be folded--along with its formidable fundraising potential--into the Democratic National Committee. Steve Hildebrand, Obama's deputy campaign manager, favored the independent option: It would allow the group to "pressure anybody who we would need to build a coalition of votes in the House and Senate," he told the Los Angeles Times in mid-November. David Plouffe, the campaign's mastermind, disagreed. He had won the election through a precisely directed field operation combined with iron message discipline, and wasn't about to give it up.

A few days before the inauguration, Obama announced, in effect, that Plouffe's view had prevailed: Organizing for America would be securely housed within the DNC. (Hildebrand returned to his consulting firm in Sioux Falls, and would later become vocally critical of the administration's incremental approach to issues such as gay rights. Plouffe stayed on as an adviser, and his firm raked in $376,000 this year from the DNC.) The bulk of the DNC's new hires have gone to support OFA, which takes up about half the square footage at party headquarters inside a putty brown stucco building south of the Capitol.

It got off to a sluggish start. "Just at the moment when the base would have been most interested in rolling up its sleeves and doing something, they were basically asked to wait, that someone else was going to decide what was going to happen, and, in the meantime, please buy this mug," says Micah Sifry, editor of, which has closely tracked the progress of Obama's online organizing since the 2008 primaries. "They built this very muscular organization and, for three to six months, let it lie relatively fallow."

The group largely sat out the stimulus fight, holding house parties and continuing to fundraise, while gearing up for Obama's signature policy initiative. "I think we all knew that health care would be the big one," Jeremy Bird, the organization's 31-year-old deputy director, told me. But when the health care debate arrived with a fury this summer, OFA ran into problems.

The first was timing: Staff were still filtering into the states in July--and, because the Senate Finance Committee hadn't produced a bill yet, OFA had little concrete to advocate for, even as conservatives found plenty to argue against. The second was tactical: Obama's campaign had never used the kind of in-your-face antics the tea-partiers embraced, focusing instead on story-telling and canvassing. "What you see on the right is an organizing model that's based on grandstanding in front of cameras, in August for example," Bird says. "That's not what we ever did on the campaign. Our organizing was the nitty gritty. I mean it really was the real, hard-core organizing work that we think moves folks and wins elections and changes peoples' lives and is based on person-to-person conversations."

But the biggest problem was built into OFA's very structure--the structure that Plouffe had wanted and Hildebrand had warned against. Obama's people had created something both entirely new and entirely old: 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. And that was a big difference. The old machines survived as top-down organizations because they gave people on the bottom something tangible in return for their participation. By contrast, successful organizations built mainly on shared philosophy tend to be driven by their memberships. Marshall Ganz, the legendary United Farm Workers organizer-turned-Harvard-professor and godfather of the Obama field strategy--he helped orchestrate Camp Obama, a grassroots training program for staff and volunteers--sees the command-and-control nature of OFA as a crucial flaw. "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 me.

It isn't a coincidence that, historically, effective grassroots movements have usually come out of losing campaigns, not winning ones--circumstances that better lend themselves to a bottom-up approach. Supporters of Adlai Stevenson's failed presidential bids in the 1950s went on to run democratic reform efforts in New York and California. Barry Goldwater's followers went on to reshape conservatism after 1964. During the 2004 primaries, the Howard Dean campaign trained a generation of online organizers, and spawned Democracy for America--now a 1.1 million-strong organization that spends money on campaigns its members choose. "With OFA, that's not the direction of that relationship," says Arshad Hasan, DFA's executive director. "They also have to be responsible to the White House. They can't take quite as many risks. … It's the ability to take risks and be ambitious that's allowed us to grow."

The difference between the two approaches has been on display during the health care debate. Dean's group has been using the public option as a clear rallying cry. OFA--aware that Obama might have to bargain away a strong public option in order to get a health care deal at all--has not pushed the issue nearly as fervently.

Furthermore, being part of the DNC has neutered Organizing for America when it comes to pressuring moderate Democrats. Over objections from the White House, outside groups like the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, MoveOn, and the Health Care for America Now coalition--which is spending $35 million this year--have been running hard-hitting ads that target foot-dragging congressmen. When OFA itself ran ads aimed at key Democratic senators, they were gauzy and positive, mentioning no one by name.OFA didn't have a choice: The White House couldn't deal with Max Baucus in good faith if its ground operation was hammering him in Montana.

Recently, OFA has sharpened its pitch--behind-the-scenes movement building wasn't much use in the here and now. In January, Plouffe had told The New York Times that OFA was "not a ‘call or e-mail your member of Congress' organization." But on October 20, OFA sponsored a massive day of calls to Congress on health care, creating the kind of media buzz the group had failed to generate over the summer.

Still, strategic tinkering aside, the group faces a serious dilemma over the long run: Can a grassroots organization run in the top-down style of a political machine really accomplish much--let alone change the terms of political debate on any given issue? On OFA's website,, I found Brenda King, a travel agent in Cincinnati who's been running a one-woman p.r. shop for health-care reform. She sends people placards to put on their cars and is publicizing a nationwide "honk-and-wave" on October 31. "I'm saying, well, somebody's got to do something on our side," she told me. "And nobody was doing anything." Looking for help, she talked to her state OFA chapter, which voiced support but couldn't provide material assistance without clearance from higher up. "The problem with OFA," she says, "is they have a strict thing that they have to follow."

Lydia DePillis is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.