Obama’s grass-roots army may get drafted

Wallsten and Hamburger are Times staff writers.

It is the biggest and broadest American political force ever created -- a vast, electronically linked network of activists, neighborhood organizers and volunteers who raised record amounts of money and propelled Barack Obama to the White House.

Now, as Obama turns from campaigning to governing, his advisors are struggling to harness this potent web of supporters to help him move his agenda over the next four years.

But it is no simple task to convert an insurgency into a standing army.

That challenge has sparked rare discord among Obama advisors who ran a highly disciplined operation with no public disagreements throughout the long campaign.

Traditionally, the new president would blend his campaign operation with his party’s national committee. Some of Obama’s closest advisors lean toward that pragmatic view.


But others, who built the grass-roots organization, worry that linking it too closely to the party could cause the unusual network to unravel -- and squander an extraordinary resource.

The Obama machinery relied heavily on idealistic political outsiders committed to breaking free from old ways of doing politics. The worry is that these enthusiastic activists might drift away if they are turned over to the Democratic National Committee, where the party might ask them to support Democrats and target Republicans.

Instead, Obama advisors involved in building the force think it should remain an independent entity -- organized around the “Obama brand.”

The goal, they say, is to integrate Obama’s political organization into his new role as president without damaging its zeal for a candidate who promised to change Washington.

“If it’s in the party,” said Marshall Ganz, a Harvard University lecturer who helped design the training curriculum for Obama’s organizers, “that’s a way to kill it.”

Steve Hildebrand, Obama’s deputy campaign manager and an architect of the grass-roots network, has been warning the president-elect’s team that it risks turning off activists who were inspired by Obama but who never considered themselves a part of the Democratic Party.

These people, Hildebrand said, could be inspired to fight for Obama’s proposals to overhaul healthcare or combat global warming, but would reject appeals that sounded like old-fashioned partisan politics.

“Barack got elected with a significant number of independent voters and a fair number of Republicans. And the agenda that he ran on is not just a Democratic agenda, it’s a broad agenda,” Hildebrand said. “If all of the communication comes from the DNC, it may not engage as many people as we’re going to need to engage at the grass-roots level.”

Hildebrand offered another argument for an independent network: It could be used to challenge Democratic lawmakers if they didn’t hew to the Obama agenda. The organization, he said, could “pressure anybody who we would need to build a coalition of votes in the House and Senate.”

Obama’s transition aides declined to comment.

But one indication of where his senior advisors stand came this week, when campaign manager David Plouffe used Obama’s vaunted e-mail list to ask for donations to help the DNC retire its debt. He even threw in an enticement that might appeal to Obama’s universe of small-dollar donors: a Change Can Happen T-shirt for those who contribute at least $30.

The e-mail suggests that at least one of the most senior advisors is not hesitant about melding the campaign and the party. “We’ll get to work transforming this country,” Plouffe wrote in the e-mail. “But first, we need to take care of the DNC.”

According to party strategists familiar with the internal debate, Plouffe and other advisors are not likely to make any decisions until January, when a new national party chairman is elected.

Those advisors, including chief strategist David Axelrod and future White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, are hearing from party insiders who think at least some of the network -- such as the estimated 10 million e-mail addresses for supporters and activists -- should be folded into the party apparatus.

Democratic strategists described a “tricky” balance between keeping the grass-roots content but recognizing the reality that Obama is now the head of the Democratic Party.

“At the end of the day, they own the DNC,” said one party advisor familiar with the internal debate who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of discussing deliberations. “Whether they merge their mailing lists or keep Obama for America as a separate entity doesn’t really matter,” the strategist added, using the campaign’s official name.

The debate has spilled into at least one undecided political contest of the 2008 election: the Georgia Senate runoff set for next month.

Democrat Jim Martin, who hopes to unseat incumbent Republican Saxby Chambliss, is advertising his association with Obama and has asked for assistance from the Obama campaign network. Obama’s top aides, now focused on remaking the federal government, have resisted jumping into the race. A spokesman said the president-elect had made no commitments yet to campaign in Georgia.

Still, illustrating the bottom-up nature of the Obama network, 100 of its organizers from neighboring states have already plunged into the race.

The debate underscores some of the larger challenges facing Obama, who must balance the idealism of his core supporters against the need to forge compromises within a Washington political environment that he criticized as a candidate but now leads.

The Obama network is far more expansive and sophisticated than the traditional list of e-mail addresses that are a common byproduct of modern campaigns.

Rooted in the street-level tactics learned by Obama when he worked in the 1980s as a community organizer in several Chicago housing projects, the network grew to include thousands of full-time organizers, many in their 20s and new to politics, who were trained to help create neighborhood teams led by volunteers.

In California, Obama’s campaign developed an e-mail list with more than 790,000 names. That included 40,000 volunteers “who did real stuff like make over 10 million telephone calls,” said Obama state campaign manager Mitchell Schwartz.

Top organizers such as Ganz, who created the training program called Camp Obama, view the network as a mass movement with unprecedented potential to influence voters.

Temo Figueroa, another top Obama campaign organizer who headed Latino voter outreach, said he was hearing from community activists across the country who wanted the network to remain intact -- but who were not necessarily party loyalists.

“A lot of these warriors on the ground are not Democrats, and that’s by choice,” Figueroa said.

“So creating a different organization might make them more apt to join it.”