President Obama's 2012 campaign manager, Jim Messina, right, will… (Alex Garcia / Chicago Tribune )
WASHINGTON — Underscoring its potential to become a political heavyweight, a new advocacy group launched Friday to push President Obama's second-term agenda will be guided by his most-trusted strategists and have access to his reelection campaign's most-prized assets, including its intricately detailed voter databases.
In an email to supporters with the subject line "Say you're in," Obama vowed that the group, Organizing for Action, would be "an unparalleled force in American politics."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, March 08, 2013 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
Obama advocacy group: In the Jan. 19 Section A, an article about Organizing for Action, a new advocacy group to support President Obama's agenda, said that longtime Obama advisor David Axelrod would serve as a consultant to the group. Axelrod says he is not working with the group.
"It will work to turn our shared values into legislative action -- and it'll empower the next generation of leaders in our movement," the president wrote.
Jim Messina, who managed Obama's 2012 campaign, will be chairman of the board, and longtime Obama advisor David Axelrod will serve as a consultant. David Plouffe, Obama's top political advisor, will also have a role when he leaves the White House, a move expected to happen soon.
"If we can take the enthusiasm and passion that people showed throughout the campaign and channel it into the work ahead of us, we will be unstoppable," Messina wrote in an email to campaign donors.
To accomplish that, however, the organization must avoid the fate of a previous effort Obama officials made in 2009 to transform his first presidential campaign into a permanent advocacy force. That project, the similarly named Organizing for America, was criticized by many Democrats for failing to effectively harness the president's grass-roots supporters.
The new group, unlike its predecessor, will be independent of the Democratic National Committee. It is being run by Jon Carson, who most recently directed the White House Office of Public Engagement. Based in Chicago and Washington, the organization's board is stocked with veteran Obama aides Robert Gibbs, Stephanie Cutter, Jennifer O'Malley Dillon, Erik Smith and Julianna Smoot, as well as technology entrepreneur Frank White, a top campaign fundraiser.
Set up as an tax-exempt advocacy group, Organizing for Action will have freer rein to operate, as well as the ability to deploy the sophisticated databases and software developed for Obama's reelection campaign. The campaign will lease those valuable assets to the advocacy group, retaining control for the foreseeable future.
The arrangement gives Obama allies supervision over the campaign's voter files, technology and email lists, which are coveted by other Democratic candidates and interest groups. The campaign has not yet made any decisions about who else will get access to them.
The decision about how -- and if -- the campaign's infrastructure will be shared is one of the most pressing questions being raised in Democratic circles in the wake of the group's launch.
"We've never had a presidential campaign that created and retained the kind of information that the Obama 2012 campaign built," said Democratic strategist Steve Hildebrand, who served as a top Obama campaign official in 2008. "So it's going to take more than a few weeks to figure this new environment out and how it should apply to future elections."
Those assets could give other candidates a strong edge, and party strategists warn of a backlash if the Obama campaign does not share its resources. But deciding who would get to use them could be tricky -- particularly in the fight for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, which could see Vice President Joe Biden competing against Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The current arrangement raises many questions, including whether the campaign will have the funds for the costly project of keeping the files current. "They are a hot commodity right now, but these lists quickly become like stinky cheese," said Steve Rosenthal, a veteran Democratic organizer. "If you don't keep updating them, they have pretty limited value."
Officials said Friday that Organizing for Action, which was set up under the tax code's section 501(c)4 as a nonprofit social welfare organization, will accept unlimited individual and corporate donations but not contributions from lobbyists, similar to the self-imposed rules governing the 2013 Presidential Inaugural Committee.
The organization plans to disclose its donors, as the inaugural committee does, even though tax-exempt advocacy groups are not required to do so. But it remains to be seen how frequently Organizing for Action will share that information and whether it will reveal the amount of the donations.