The first rule of political organizing is to find a bad guy and rally people to stop him. For Barack Obama, the country’s most successful political organizer, the bad guys have always been monied special interests in Washington and the Republicans they influence. Now that his advisers are creating their own special interest operation, a $50 million grassroots group called Organizing for Action (OFA), none of that has changed.
“The President always believed that the special interests had undue influence over the policy making,” said Jim Messina, Obama’s former campaign manager and the chairman of the new group at the St. Regis Hotel in Washington on Wednesday. “The mission of this organization is to restore that balance.”
Messina spoke those words at the start of a two-day founder’s conference for OFA that will culminate tonight with a dinner that includes President Obama, high-dollar donors and volunteers. Most of the proceedings will take place behind closed doors, in much the same way other special interests in Washington carry out their fundraising. But in the opening hour of the event, which was open to the press, former Obama officials argued that their special interest effort will be entirely different than other special interest efforts. “Special interests shouldn’t have a stranglehold over the policy process,” Messina continued. “Instead of change coming from paid lobbysist on K Street change is going to come from ordinary Americans.”
Just how OFA will be different from other special interest groups looking to change Washington remains to be seen. The people leading the effort say they will be more transparent than many other groups in town, voluntarily disclosing on a quarterly basis all donations over $250. They will also refuse contributions from corporations, foreign citizens and lobbyists. But they will accept unlimited donations from individuals, unions and other non-profit organizations, like foundations, which make up a significant part of the special interest money that sloshes around Washington D.C. every year. Those donors will have special access to briefings, like the events this week in Washington, with government officials, though staff says volunteers and grassroots organizers will also be included in all activities. “This is something that should be celebrated, not criticized,” said David Plouffe, a former top White House and campaign strategist for Obama.
OFA may also differ in the size of its grassroots army, which it has inherited from Obama’s 2012 campaign. In the briefing Wednesday, officials with the new group laid out some numbers: Over 10,000 neighborhood team captains, 1,200 watch parties organized for the most recent State of the Union Address, over 100 events in recent weeks asking members of Congress to support greater gun control, 1.1 million people who have “done at least one volunteer action,” since the campaign ended, though “sending a tweet” counted as a volunteer action.
In other ways, however, OFA will function much like any other large advocacy group trying to influence politics in Washington, with an immediate focus on issues like gun control, immigration reform and climate change. Messina cited the National Rifle Association (NRA) and various “shady” hardline immigration groups as examples of the special interests they will oppose. Like the new OFA, the NRA is a large, grassroots membership driven organization focused on influencing policy in Washington. But for Obama’s former aides, there was no comparison. “We can’t afford business as usual,” said Messina. “That time has passed.”
Shortly afterwards, reporters were asked to clear the room. In addition to a meeting with Obama, participants in the two day conference are expected to get briefings from former Obama campaign advisers Stephanie Cutter and Ben Labolt, from former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson and Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.