Obama’s advocacy group ramps up plan for national network

Organizing for Action head Jim Messina reacts to President Obama's remarks at the group's dinner at the St. Regis Hotel in Washington.
(Mandel Ngan / AFP/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON -- Organizing for Action, the nonprofit advocacy group pushing President Obama’s legislative agenda, plans to hold state conferences as part of an effort to roll out chapters across the country in May, trying to knit together the network of volunteers that helped Obama win reelection.

Leaders of the group unveiled some of their plans Thursday during a two-day “founders summit” and strategy session at an upscale Washington hotel a few blocks from the White House.


Obama addressed the gathering Wednesday night, asking about 75 donors, volunteers and staff in a closed-door dinner to back the organization in order to avoid the mistake he made after the 2008 campaign, when “some of that energy just kind of dissipated, and we were only playing an inside game.”

At that time, his aides tried to run a similar effort called Organizing for America from within the Democratic National Committee, but activists complained that it did not work aggressively enough to keep them engaged. Whether the latest iteration of OFA will be more successful remains an open question.

The new group aims to begin running sustained issue campaigns on gun control, immigration reform and the budget next week.

After initially getting by with a skeleton staff after it was launched in January, Organizing for Action is now rapidly expanding, bringing back top staffers from the campaign to run the Chicago-based group. Among them are digital director Toby Fallsgraff, who guided Obama’s email program in 2012, and issue campaigns director Lindsay Siler, who served as the campaign’s state director in North Carolina.

On Thursday, they joined organizing director Sara El-Amine to give supporters a postmortem on the organization’s first “Day of Action” on Feb. 22, when volunteers held 117 events across the country calling on members of Congress to support universal background checks for gun buyers.

The project was launched after OFA staff saw Obama supporters react to the president’s call for Congress to act on gun control during his State of the Union address.

“I remember watching my Facebook feed and my Twitter feed just explode when the president started to talk about gun violence prevention,” El-Amine said. “I knew ... this was a moment, and it wasn’t a moment that we were driving. It was a moment that we were helping harness and organize the energy around.”

Fallsgraff said more than 12,000 people posted stories and videos online sharing their personal reasons for backing stricter gun control measures.

“There was some real power in this moment,” he said.

To bolster the volunteer-driven events on the ground, Organizing for Action ran its first round of online ads, targeting 13 GOP lawmakers to support background checks. The group also emailed supporters asking them to contact their representatives via Twitter, generating “tens of thousands” of tweets, Fallsgraff said, including many from people who had never used Twitter before.

In the end, Siler said, “we actually saw results.”

“From this great day of action, it was three or four days later and the Senate Judiciary Committee was moving on a markup on a bill,” she said. “We want to see that happen time and time again. It’s where truly we can take our organizing and help push legislation action.”

But there is little evidence that the group’s activities had an effect on the legislative process. The committee chairman, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), had already announced his intention in January to mark up gun control measures by the end of February.

A bill to expand background checks sponsored by Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) finally cleared the committee on Tuesday on a party-line vote, but it does not reflect the bipartisan compromise that would be necessary to pass the Senate.

Organizing for Action spokeswoman Katie Hogan said the group had an effect by generating “conversations in communities that brought attention to their members of Congress who would soon have to decide on that issue,” calling the Day of Action “timely.”

Follow Politics Now on Twitter and Facebook