WASHINGTON — Leaders of a new advocacy group formed to back President Obama’s second-term agenda sought Wednesday to cast the group as a vehicle for average Americans to engage with their government, seeking to dispel criticism that the nonprofit provides special interests access to the administration.
Kicking off a two-day “founders summit” to inaugurate Organizing for Action, longtime Obama political strategist David Plouffe noted that top aides to the president only formed the group after a survey of the campaign’s volunteers showed that more supporters wanted a way to stay involved than even after Obama’s first win in 2008.
“I think the reason is that people saw after four years how hard it was,” Plouffe said a group of about 70 donors, volunteers and former staff gathered in a stuffy meeting room of a Washington hotel. “Not many of us are naïve anymore. They understand they want to dig in here and they want to make progress and fulfill the commitments the president has made to the American people in the campaign.”
“Aside from what they are going to help us accomplish, just the notion that there’s millions of Americans that want to be part of these debates, that they’ve been closed off from it for so long in Washington, that in my mind is reason enough to march forward,” he added. “This is something that should be celebrated, not criticized.”
Plouffe spoke hours before the group was set to hear from Obama in a closed-door dinner, his first in-person remarks to the organization since it was launched in late January.
In the ensuing weeks, Organizing for Action has come under fire from campaign finance reform watchdogs and Republicans alike. Set up as a 501(c)4 “social welfare” organization, the group can raise unlimited sums and is already working in coordination with the White House, as permitted by law. Reform advocates have assailed that arrangement, arguing that the organization could serve as a potential conduit for special interests seeking to influence the administration. Among those attending the founders’ summit were wealthy donors who were asked to commit $50,000 to the group.
Under pressure, the group last week reversed its decision to accept corporate cash and promised to provide more details about its donors.
On Wednesday morning, Organizing for Action officials did not directly address the criticism, but they emphasized that the group was not a partisan organization and would not engage in elections.
“We are here to move this shared progressive agenda forward, and we will advocate to Democrats to move that forward, we will advocate to Republicans,” said executive director Jon Carson. “We will form partnerships with whoever we need to do move these agendas forward. But issues are our focus.”
In the coming weeks, the group plans to ramp up sustained campaigns to press Congress to find a solution to the current federal budget cuts, immigration reform and reducing gun violence, all top White House priorities.
But Jim Messina, who ran Obama’s reelection campaign and now serves as the national chairman for Organizing for Action, also stressed that the group will be driven from the bottom up.
“This is going to be absolutely local,” he said, noting that individual chapters could focus on different topics. “Members will decide what issues in their community they most care about.”
He said that since the group’s launch, 1.1 million Americans “have done at least one volunteer action for Organizing for Action, anywhere from a social media tweet to organizing a local press conference.”
“That’s the power of the grass-roots, and that’s what’s going to help pass the president’s legislative agenda,” Messina said.
“Now, I suppose we all could sit back and relax after the campaign and say, ‘We got him reelected,’” he added. “And it could be tempting to say, ‘OK, now let’s let him do his job. But it’s not ‘Yes, He Can.’ It’s ‘Yes, We Can.’”
Whether Organizing for Action can successfully harness its resources to shape the messy process of passing legislation remains to be seen. There are already signs that the group’s campaign-style tactics could run at cross-purposes with the White House’s behind-the-scenes efforts to court GOP support for a major deficit reduction deal -- an effort that includes a slew of meetings Obama is holding this week with congressional leaders.
In an interview, Plouffe said that the two tracks would not interfere with one another. Organizing for Action supporters are currently focused on immigration, gun control and the so-called sequester, he said, while discussions about a major budget agreement are largely happening on the Hill.
“What’s going to happen down the road will depend somewhat on whether these discussions take fruit,” he said. “If Congress is really able to come up with something that meets the test of balance and is good for the economy, then I think the majority of our grassroots supporters will want to support it.”