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Obama sets up national network to help policy agenda

The network, Organizing for America, will be a tool to press for policy. It reportedly will have an annual budget of $75 million, making it an unprecedented standing political army for a president.

January 18, 2009|Peter Wallsten

WASHINGTON — Telling millions of campaign supporters that "what you built can't stop now," President-elect Barack Obama on Saturday took his first public steps toward transforming his massive grass-roots political machinery into an unprecedented national network to help pass his policy agenda.

Obama said Organizing for America, the new network, would be used as a tool to press for policies on major issues, including the healthcare system, the Iraq war and the development of new energy sources. He also said the effort would be housed in a distinctly partisan place: the Democratic National Committee.

That means the organization, as it grows, will be well-positioned to be used as a vehicle for his reelection campaign, to bolster the campaigns of Obama-friendly Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections, and to pressure those in his party who do not agree with him.

"The movement you've built is too important to stop growing now," Obama said in a video announcement posted on YouTube and linked from an e-mail sent to more than 13 million supporters.

The future of Obama's network has been a lingering question since the presidential election, which he won partly because of his use of the Internet and his huge e-mail list to mobilize tens of thousands of volunteers -- capturing once-Republican states such as Florida, Ohio, Colorado and Virginia.

Some former Obama campaign officials had hoped that the network would be kept separate from the Democratic National Committee to avoid alienating supporters who were inspired by Obama but did not consider themselves Democrats.

Obama provided few details in his announcement Saturday, and an aide said many details remained unresolved. But sources familiar with the planning say Organizing for America will employ a full-time staff of hundreds of professional organizers -- possibly an average of between one and two workers per congressional district in certain politically important states. One source said that Obama aides have discussed an annual budget of $75 million -- an unprecedented standing political army that will await orders from a president.

The network also has the potential to cause tension within the Democratic Party, because Obama is expected to mobilize the organization to target Democratic lawmakers in Republican-leaning districts who might hesitate to vote for his agenda when it comes to universal healthcare, for example, or imposing limits on carbon dioxide emissions.

Some state-level party strategists have expressed worry about donors being asked to contribute to a new network that would be focused on Obama's needs. They fear the group would overshadow the party's traditional job of getting local officials elected, including Democrats who may not always agree with the president but can appeal to a more conservative district.

In a written statement released Saturday, Obama's designee to lead the Democratic National Committee, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, signaled that Organizing for America would work at two levels to bolster the new president: supporting candidates sympathetic to his agenda and pressing to get that agenda passed.

"We can succeed only if we build grass-roots support for the administration's agenda," Kaine said. "As the DNC works to elect candidates who will support the change agenda, we will also invest in bottom-up efforts that ensure that the priorities of everyday Americans are heard in Washington."

Campaign officials said that more than 500,000 surveys were returned from volunteers who were asked to suggest the best use for the network. The vast majority said that enacting Obama's agenda should be the top priority.

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peter.wallsten@latimes.com

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