By Justin Sink and Amie Parnes - 03/15/13 10:00 AM EDT
Two months after Organizing for Action was founded to bolster President Obama’s agenda, his poll numbers are slipping and the group remains on the defensive.
A link between Obama's declining approval numbers and the group's struggles is tenuous at best, yet questions about how effective the group can be in cajoling Congress to work with Obama were swirling this week at a summit meant to showcase OFA.
Watchdog groups have accused OFA of selling access to the White House, while traditional allies like the Democratic National Committee and congressional campaign committees have expressed concern the organization could siphon away important fundraising dollars.
"It's definitely had some turbulence in terms of process," said one former senior administration official. "Has it had the best process start? Probably not. Mostly because I think it's set up against a bunch of negatives and people saying, 'You're never going to raise enough money.' Anytime you do something new, there are going to be some potholes in the road.”
Obama acknowledged the problems in a Wednesday address at the “founders summit” intended as a celebratory launch for around 75 top donors and volunteers.
He said OFA “has been viewed with some suspicion and people have been puzzled about what it is we’re trying to do.”
But former White House adviser David Plouffe in an earlier address defended the group and said it “should be celebrated, not criticized” for its political efforts.
It’s been an inauspicious start for an organization that carries the legacy of two successful presidential campaigns – and has positioned itself as a conduit to break through the gridlock of Washington.
Yet the true measure of the group’s success will be its effectiveness in winning over lawmakers from key swing districts to back the president’s agenda on issues like immigration, gun control, and energy. Obama in his address said for OFA to be effective, it would need to provide political cover to such lawmakers.
“If you have a senator of a congressman in a swing district who is prepared to take a tough vote… I want to make sure they feel supported and they know there are constituencies of theirs that agree with them, even if they may be getting a lot of pushback in that district," Obama said. "If we move aggressively on an issue like climate change, that's not an easy issue for a lot of folks because the benefits may be out in the future, and I want to make sure a congressman, a senator feels as if they have the information and the grassroots network that will support them."
Obama sees the group as having the potential to reverse a pivotal mistake from his first term, when Obama feels he failed to harness the enthusiasm of his campaign to promote his policy agenda.
There’s some worry the window for OFA’s success might have already begun to close.
With slipping popularity and congressional Republicans retrenching for another round of budget fights, Obama’s once bountiful post-election political capital is being gradually depleted.
But OFA supporters argued that rather than being derailed by the political circumstances, the group was the answer to the problem.
Ben LaBolt, a spokesman for the Obama campaign who led one of the summit’s seminars, noted Thursday that “more than one million Americans have already taken action through OFA to urge members of Congress to support comprehensive immigration reform, gun safety measures, and policies that will strengthen the middle class.”
President Obama told the group that their efforts “may give space here in Washington to do the kind of work — hopefully bipartisan work — that's required.”
"This is what inside Washington doesn't get about outside Washington,” said the former administration official. “They're thinking about this strictly in terms of process. But it's about how you engage these folks. If you went on and knocked on doors because you're into climate change, you're going to do it on an off year.”
A Democratic operative also argued that the group’s nonprofit status – which prevents it from explicitly partisan, electoral activity – would actually aid the group in its mission to forward the president’s agenda.
“Four years ago we tried to construct OFA as an organization with dual missions -- electing Democrats and passing the president’s policies -- and we may have bit off more than we could chew,” he said. “There's ample need for an organization wholly dedicated to passing this ambitious agenda.”
Even donors who acknowledged the group was off to a slow start predicted that just as the campaign heated up, so will OFA.
"When the president really starts to push these issues like immigration, that's when you're going to see this operation going at full speed,” said one top Obama donor. “This is why people elected the president. It wasn't necessarily about him but what he could do."