The West Front of the Capitol in Washington is dressed in red, white and blue… (J. Scott Applewhite / Associated…)
WASHINGTON — The cavernous ballroom of the Washington Hilton had the feel of Old Home Week as hundreds of former campaign staff and volunteers for President Obama’s reelection bid assembled there Sunday morning, greeting each other with whoops and bear hugs and breaking out into intermittent chants of “Fired up? Ready to go!”
But the gathering, dubbed the Obama Campaign Legacy Conference, aimed to be more than a reunion for the on-the-ground organizers who helped build Obama’s grass-roots army.
As Obama took his official oath of office for a second term, top campaign officials exhorted activists to remain committed to their cause.
The vehicle: a new tax-exempt group called Organizing for Action — that will fight for the president’s legislative priorities. The group nods to its origins by borrowing the initials of the campaign’s formal “Obama for America” title.
“You guys changed American politics forever!” shouted campaign manager Jim Messina, who will serve as the unpaid chairman of the new organization.
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The group, largely volunteer-driven, will tackle issues such as gun control, climate change and immigration reform.
One of the immediate projects: spreading the word to people without health insurance about how they can get coverage under Obama’s healthcare overhaul.
“We are going to take this network and we are going finish some jobs we started in the first term,” said Jon Carson, a former White House official who left the administration to serve as the group’s executive director. “You passed the Affordable Care Act, and now it’s time to get 40 million people registered for insurance all across this country.”
He also vowed that the group would make “Republicans accountable for being climate change deniers, and we will go after them.”
And the organization plans to run ads in the congressional districts of lawmakers who have been endorsed by the National Rifle Assn, he said.
Carson cast the new OFA as a locally driven effort, and encouraged volunteers to organize chapters in their communities. He said chapters would have to raise their own money to get access to the campaign’s database -- an announcement that drew some shouts of disapproval from the audience.
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But he promised the organization would provide training for local OFA chapters and set up conference calls with administration officials and experts who could provide briefings on congressional rules and other topics.
Over and over, campaign officials stressed the impact volunteers had on the campaign, revealing some of its historic accomplishments. Top among them: recruiting 2.2 million volunteers, 80% more than in 2008. Together, they made more than 150 million voter contacts through phone calls and door-knocking.
“We are the most powerful group in America,” declared Sara El-Amine, who organized Sunday’s gathering. “Our legacy is not an email list. It’s not a tech tool. It’s not an analytics model. Our legacy is you.”
Cathy Johns, a volunteer who helped organize her Toledo neighborhood, related to the crowd how her team had fended off GOP challenger Mitt Romney’s campaign in Ohio.
“Along the way, we realized we could do anything,” she said. “So with deepest respect, Mr. President – bring it on.”
After the election, more than 1 million volunteers participated in an online survey about what would keep them engaged. Nearly two-thirds said they wanted to work to pass Obama’s legislative agenda.
Whether the new OFA can sustain the dedication of those supporters remains an open question. A similar project set up after the 2008 campaign, housed at the time within the Democratic National Committee, was criticized by many Obama supporters for failing to effectively keep grass-roots supporters engaged.
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“I do understand it’s hard,” Messina acknowledged in his address. “It’s a different kind of organizing.… But if you look at issue organizing, we get to focus on people’s passions.”
The ambition of the new group heartened Sonia Prince, who served as a neighborhood team leader in Nashua, N.H.
“After 2008, there was a little bit of a lull there,” said Prince, 40, a financial coach. “That first year was kind of dead. I think they could have done a better job to keep everyone together. Because everyone was so fired up, and then it just ended. This time, if we keep them informed and we keep them talking about the topics at hand -- there’s more than just electing a president. You need a lot of people to push against the big lobby money.”
Prince, a mother of three, said she has already been working to toughen gun control measures in her community. But she will have less time available: After taking a year off from work to volunteer for the campaign, she is now getting back to her career.
“I gave up a year of salary for this,” she said. “As soon as we won the election, my job was like, are you coming back?”
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