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Obama's grass-roots network is put to the test

A group that helped elect the president is being reshaped to push healthcare legislation.

August 10, 2009|Peter Wallsten

WASHINGTON — To win the White House, Barack Obama and his political team built a vast grass-roots network of supporters and volunteers that came to be considered one of the most valuable assets in American politics. Their ambition after the election was to reshape the network, with its trained organizers and 13 million e-mail addresses, into a ground-level force to push the new president's policy goals.

But now, entering a crucial congressional recess month in which Obama's healthcare plan faces stiffened opposition, some members of the network say that the group is still figuring out how to operate. Some also say their work has been slowed by tensions over tactics, disenchantment among some core supporters and an effective GOP resistance.

In Farmington, Mo., Obama backer Craig Hartel wonders why the movement has balked at pressuring centrist Democrats who are wavering on whether to support a public health insurance option that would compete with private insurers.

In Chester, Va., Beth Kimbriel often volunteers 40 hours a week to persuade locals to support Obama. But with critics of the healthcare plan so prominently grabbing headlines and spreading what she calls misinformation, Kimbriel finds that "it's difficult to be believed" when she lays out the president's position.

And in Cary, N.C., Murray Silverstone, inspired by the election and eager to pitch in on the healthcare fight, wonders why staffers didn't arrive in his area and begin trying to reconstruct the campaign system until five weeks ago.

"It wasn't clear to us why there was such a delay," said Silverstone, an astronomer who fits in volunteer work amid his research and college teaching.

The early challenges faced by the network, Organizing for America, present problems for the president and his ambitions for overhauling healthcare policy.

With public skepticism rising over Obama's plan, which is still being worked out with Congress, Democrats were hoping that the August recess would provide a chance to explain the complex and, in some cases, fear-inducing legislation to a nervous public. But Republicans, talk radio and conservative advocacy groups have seized the moment, drowning out that opportunity through a campaign to disrupt Democratic town hall meetings.

Beyond the healthcare debate, the network's troubles suggest that even a well-tuned campaign operation -- with its stable of trained organizers, precinct captains and neighborhood coordinators -- is not easily transformed into a policymaking force that Obama might rely on to deliver on other issues, such as global warming and immigration legislation.

The network is powered by local volunteers who often have left-leaning goals. But the president, now that he is in office, has in many cases adopted a centrist approach that accommodates Republicans and business groups.

That means some activists are being asked to devote evenings and weekends to build support for policies they may feel only lukewarm about.

Last year, "Obama's sexy, he was hot, and everybody wanted a piece of that," said Candice Davies, a speech therapist in Cary who trained canvassers for last year's campaign and is trying to organize support for healthcare legislation. "Now, people are going to have to work for something that is not quite as slick or sexy."

Officials in charge of the network concede that opponents of the healthcare overhaul have been more organized than Democrats had expected.

But they say Organizing for America, which was known as Obama for America during the presidential campaign, is quietly and deliberately building a system of professional field organizers and trained volunteers that has already inspired thousands of community events and reached millions of people.

Staffers have been hired so far in 42 states, said the group's deputy director, Jeremy Bird, and he expects to have paid workers in every state in a matter of weeks.

"We've been methodical, dogged and focused," Bird said. "It's like in the early days of the campaign, people said we needed to be louder, to have more signs. But we focused on the conversations between people and neighbors, and that's what worked."

Organizing for America's website displays hundreds of upcoming events, ranging from tiny house parties to solicitations to match the conservative presence at town hall meetings. With new online tools, supporters can tell their own healthcare stories to be distributed to lawmakers, and network members can monitor their colleagues' calls to Capitol Hill.

A Democratic National Convention spokesman, Hari Sevugan, argued that the Obama network ultimately would prove more effective than the GOP approach because "grass-roots efforts are won at the doors, with neighbors talking to neighbors, not in front of news cameras with folks screaming at members of a community."

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