Obama keeps the machine humming

November 23, 2008|By PAUL WEST | PAUL WEST,paul.west@baltsun.com

Washington - Think of Barack Obama's political organization as a Maserati, a luxury, high-performance vehicle that lapped the competition this year. The president-elect hasn't indicated precisely what he'll do with his baby, which he's called, perhaps accurately, the best ever built.

One thing he's unlikely to do is put it away in the garage for the next four years. Modern presidents typically shut their campaigns down, bring their political advisers into the government and run their political operations out of the White House and national party headquarters in Washington.

Obama is doing a bit of that. His chief strategist, David Axelrod, was one of his first high-level White House appointments. Another top Obama lieutenant has been in charge at the Democratic National Committee office since the summer, and more will follow.

But the new president may well decide to keep his campaign machine humming, which would be a significant departure. The main question seems to be how far and how fast he'll take it.

Officials won't provide details, but there are growing signs that he intends to employ his campaign organization to keep supporters engaged, help him govern more effectively and, of course, prepare for a 2012 re-election run. Exactly how he'd do that - perhaps by trying to shape public opinion and pressure wavering lawmakers, including Democrats, to support his initiatives - isn't clear yet.

There have been reports that Obama's advisers haven't decided how closely to mesh his campaign with the national party apparatus. One argument for keeping a separate network would be to avoid alienating supporters whose connection is to Obama, rather than to the Democratic Party, and have a strong distaste for partisan politics.

Veteran strategists see considerable merit in keeping Obama's political operation outside the party structure. He could use it to help communicate the merits of his initiatives - for example, a health care overhaul plan - both through his own network and, potentially, by raising money to promote his ideas with television ads, radio, direct mail, the Internet and other avenues of communication.

"I don't think anybody's done anything like this before, certainly nothing as sophisticated as this and nothing as capable of actually having an impact on public opinion," said Bill Carrick, a Democratic consultant in Los Angeles.

Obama aides aren't saying how the effort will be structured but indicate that he wants to channel the energy of millions of supporters.

"President-elect Obama was clear throughout the campaign that elected officials alone aren't going to bring change to Washington and that it would take a broad coalition of Americans organizing their own communities to build support for the change we need," said Ben LaBolt, a spokesman for Obama for America, the campaign organization. "There's no question that we will continue to leverage the work our supporters are doing locally to support the policy agenda they rallied around during the campaign."

Voter information gathered by Obama's campaign has gone into the DNC's databank, which will be under Obama's control but remains the property of the national party. His most valuable assets - a full list of donors, including some 3 million who gave online, and an e-mail list of 13 million names - are Obama's alone and likely to stay tightly held outside the party structure.

The runoff election for a Senate seat in Georgia provides an early indication of this two-track approach. Obama has directed volunteers and campaign workers to Georgia, kept Democratic field offices open in the state and recorded a radio commercial on behalf of the Democratic candidate, Jim Martin. He may even make an in-person campaign appearance before the Dec. 2 vote. But he hasn't let Martin use his database, according to a Democratic official.

The other day, Obama took steps to begin re-organizing his grass-roots network of campaign volunteers.

A mass e-mail, sent out over the signature of campaign manager David Plouffe, asked Obama supporters to "help shape the future of this movement" by submitting a four-page online questionnaire.

The Obama organization "will continue to work for change," Plouffe wrote, "whether it's by building grassroots support for legislation, backing state and local candidates," or working at the neighborhood level.

Obama's information request also appears on his campaign Web site, which remains active. It will deepen his databank by adding fresh demographic details about supporters - including age, ethnic background and religious affiliation - along with specific issue concerns, level of political experience and whether they'd like to remain "part of an Obama organization."

Don Devine, a Republican strategist from Maryland who worked in Ronald Reagan's campaigns and in his administration, said that most presidents haven't had a separate organization or haven't tended it very well.

"It's a smart thing to do," he said. "And if some of Obama's supporters don't identify with the Democratic Party, that would be doubly smart."

But a former Obama campaign adviser called it needlessly expensive to maintain a separate political arm outside the DNC and warned that the new president's strategists may overreach if they try to keep their campaign apparatus running at a cost of tens of millions of dollars a year.

"You don't have the glue any more," said this Democrat, who requested anonymity to discuss internal strategy. "Obama's election was the cause," he added, not individual items on his agenda as president.

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