At stake: How D.C. works

There were personal messages from David Plouffe in several million e-mail boxes on Wednesday morning. Barack Obama’s campaign manager was rallying the troops under the flag of Organizing for America, the Democratic National Committee-based group dedicated to building grassroots support for Obama’s policies. Plouffe’s e-mail was part of a test drive of the concept that the same tools used to build and activate Obama’s army for the November election could have a real impact in Washington.

The e-mail featured a video message from the president in which he reminded his supporters that after winning the November election, “I said our victory was not the change we were looking for — it was only the chance to make that change.” The president said he had proposed an ambitious economic plan that was already putting the nation on the road to recovery. But, he said, “we must rebuild our economy on a foundation that lasts.” That foundation included a new energy policy, healthcare reform and a commitment to education that would keep America competitive.

The president’s message is starting to generate some pushback on Capitol Hill from emboldened Republicans and nervous Democrats. The Congress is used to dealing with big issues incrementally over time. Many members just don’t think they have “the bandwidth” to deal with a stimulus package, a banking crisis, healthcare reform, energy and education all at the same time. “Job one has got to be the economy,” said Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) last week. “We’re talking about big, lofty things, but we’re leaving behind some of the basics.” Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) is reported to have commented that, “From the standpoint of the Congress, there’s only so much that we can absorb and do at one time.”

Polls show that voters don’t agree with the senators. Rather than overreaching, they see the president as multitasking, and they think it is high time someone in Washington started doing that. A poll for the Pew Research Center found a solid 56 percent majority rejecting the suggestion that Obama is trying to do too much. Another survey conducted for National Public Radio by the bipartisan team of Public Opinion Strategies and Greenburg Quinlan Rosner found strong support for the president’s economic recovery plans. Fifty-six percent approved of the way Obama was handling the mess we are in. And they share his priorities for fixing things. Overwhelmingly, they say the president and Congress should be paying the most attention to the economy and jobs. Healthcare ties for second place with taxes and spending. Education is third most important, easing out the war in Iraq and terrorism on the list of critical issues.

Obama’s team of organizers hopes to capitalize on that broad support to counter what it sees as Washington’s preference for the old way of doing things. This Saturday, it is trying to motivate and organize thousands of volunteers across the country to do a door-to-door canvass, circulating a “pledge” for citizens to sign calling on their elected representatives to support Obama’s entire economic package — including healthcare, energy and education reform. Jeremy Bird, deputy national director of Organizing for America, appears in a video link making the case that “change must come from us.” He says the president’s plan “does away with short-term political thinking,” which is why the establishment in Washington “won’t welcome this new direction.”

Bird positions this weekend’s pledge canvass as “the first step” in a national grassroots movement to provide political muscle for Obama’s agenda. He makes clear the stakes for those who proved “Yes We Can” last November: “We can’t let this plan be debated solely behind closed doors in Washington, D.C., where special interests and the old ways of doing business will do everything they can to stop it.”

It is one thing to raise that rallying cry in the heated atmosphere of a political campaign, when emotions and energy are high. It is entirely another to ask your troops to make phone calls and go door-to-door seeking signatures on a complicated piece of public policy in the pale sun of a cold spring and a colder economy. This weekend will be the first real test of the Obama principle of organizing for long-term change. If enough people phone, enough people walk and enough people sign, it will send a powerful message to Washington: This is a whole new game we are playing. If Team Obama falls short, it is likely it is going to be stuck with the old establishment rules for some time.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen. E-mail: ben@gcsa.com