Grass-Roots Group Born Of Obama Campaign Now Helps Push His Causes

Apr 15, 2016
Originally published on April 15, 2016 2:17 pm

Organizing for Action, the grass-roots network born from the Obama campaigns, is now deep in the battle over confirming the president's nominee to the Supreme Court. These days, OFA is a nonprofit that organizes on progressive issues and trains future grass-roots gurus.

"You know this is very much an organization that is led by people out in their communities who care about the issues of the day," said Buffy Wicks, a member of OFA's board of advisers and a veteran of Obama's two presidential campaigns and his White House.

Wicks and others at OFA said volunteers can choose their issues, in a bottom-up organization with more than 250 chapters that have considerable autonomy. Still, and not surprisingly, those issues tend to follow the Obama agenda — "things like the Supreme Court vacancy, climate change, you know, gun violence," Wicks said.

OFA allied with the League of Conservation Voters recently in Wisconsin, for a demonstration against Republican Sen. Ron Johnson. The event was part of coordinated "days of action" by progressive groups in favor of Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland. Johnson, like most other Senate Republicans, opposes any hearings.

Besides demonstrations, OFA has run digital ads supporting Garland, and it's in a liberal coalition that's been funneling phone calls to Capitol Hill. OFA calls recently have focused on the offices of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the 11 Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

David Willett, spokesman for the League of Conservation Voters, praised OFA, saying it knows how to turn out a lot of volunteers.

"The effective and disciplined way that they're able to organize their membership at the grass-roots level is definitely at the top of the game," he said.

While it works on issues, OFA also trains people in grass-roots organizing and leadership skills, a deliberate echo of Obama's days as a community organizer. "We've graduated over 3,000 people across the country who have the skills now to be leaders on these issues," Wicks said.

She called it "a big piece of what I think we can offer kind of the broader progressive community."

OFA began in 2007 as Obama for America, a combination of digital networking and grass-roots organizing that revolutionized American politics. After the election, it took its multimillion-name email list and became Organizing for America, part of the Democratic National Committee.

After the 2012 election, OFA changed again, switching from a political committee to a 501(c)(4) "social welfare" group named Organizing for Action. In 2013 (the latest data available) it told the IRS it had a budget of $20 million.

The cheering, and even screaming, sounded almost like a rock concert, as President Obama walked onstage at the group's November meeting.

"Understand this," he told the gathering. "I may hold this office for another 14 months. But I'm not going anywhere."

Sidney Milkis, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, writes in a new research paper that OFA provides a new kind of support for a president who is always at odds with Congress, asking its network to spread his messages.

"They think of themselves as Obama's family," he said in an interview. "They've got his back. And I think it's really significant for a president to have a presence on the ground, community organizers."

So, what happens to OFA when Obama leaves office?

Milkis has a theory: "What they will do depends on what happens in 2016." That means either building on Obama's legacy in a Democratic administration or defending it in a Republican one.

OFA officials say they'll be asking volunteers about options for the post-election future.

Obama himself has suggested he wants OFA to stay active. In his November speech, he told volunteers, "I'm gonna keep on going as long as you'll have me." The audience cheered.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The battle over the vacant Supreme Court seat includes all of the usual advocacy groups on the left and right and also one that usually flies under the radar. Organizing for Action is a group that evolved from Barack Obama's two presidential campaigns, and it has a full agenda in his final year in office, as NPR's Peter Overby reports.

(LAUGHTER)

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: It sounded almost like a rock concert when President Obama walked on stage at OFA's November meeting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Hello, OFA.

OVERBY: As Obama spoke, he was in a reflective mood.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: Understand this, I may only hold this office for another 14 months, but I'm not going anywhere.

OVERBY: OFA began as Obama for America in 2007, a combo of digital networking and grassroots organizing that revolutionized American politics. After the election, OFA took its massive email list and became Organizing for America, part of the Democratic National Committee. It changed again after the 2012 election. Organizing for Action isn't a political committee, it's a 501-c-4 social welfare group with a budget of 20 million dollars, and an emphasis on the grassroots.

BUFFY WICKS: You know, this is very much an organization that is led by people out in their communities who care about the issues of the day.

OVERBY: Buffy Wicks worked on Obama's campaigns and in his White House. Now she's on the OFA Board of Directors. She said OFA volunteers choose their issues. Not surprisingly, the list tends to follow the Obama agenda.

WICKS: Things like the Supreme Court vacancy, climate change, you know, gun violence prevention.

OVERBY: The other thing OFA does is train people in grassroots organizing and leadership skills.

WICKS: We've, you know, graduated over 3,000 people across the country who have the skills now to be leaders on these issues.

OVERBY: And that, Wicks said...

WICKS: Is a big piece of what I think we can offer kind of the broader progressive community.

OVERBY: OFA and the League of Conservation Voters joined forces in Wisconsin for a grassroots push on climate change. Also in Wisconsin, the two groups demonstrated against Republican Senator Ron Johnson. He opposes confirmation hearings for Obama's Supreme Court nominee. At the League of Conservation Voters, spokesman David Willett said OFA knows how to turn out a lot of volunteers.

DAVID WILLETT: The effective and disciplined way that they're able to organize their membership at the grassroots level is definitely at the top of the game.

OVERBY: Besides demonstrations, OFA volunteers are calling Capitol Hill in favor of confirmation hearings. A political scientist at UVA just finished a research paper on OFA. Sydney Milkis writes that OFA provides a new kind of support for a president who's always at odds with Congress.

SYDNEY MILKIS: They think of themselves as Obama's family. They've got his back. And I think it's really significant for a president to have a presence on the ground, community organizers.

OVERBY: Now here's the big question, what happens to OFA when Obama leaves office? Obama himself suggests he wants OFA to stay around. Here's how he said it back in November.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OBAMA: I'm going to keep on going as long as you'll have me, all Right? Thank You, OFA. God bless you.

OVERBY: OFA plans to ask its volunteers what it should do. Milkis has his own theory.

MILKIS: What they will do will depend on what happens in 2016.

OVERBY: That means building on Obama's legacy in a Democratic administration or defending it in a Republican one. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.