Initial response to Obama's grassroots appeal: It's a bust

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 6, 2009 

WASHINGTON — Few supporters are answering President Barack Obama's call for nationwide house-party gatherings this weekend to build grass-roots support for his economic stimulus plan.

A McClatchy survey of sign-up rosters for a score of cities across the country revealed only 34 committed attendees in Tacoma, Wash., as of midafternoon Friday; in Fort Worth, Texas, only 54, and in Sacramento, Calif., just 78.

"Before the election, we would have had 500 to 800," said Kim Mack, 46, a Sacramento city-facility manager who's hosted house parties for political figures and causes since the mid-'90s.

Even in Washington, policy-wonk capital of the nation, only about 500 people had signed up.

Damien LaVera, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, objected to the characterization that few people had responded. He called the interest level "considerable" for what he described as "the first national call to action aimed at helping to keep people informed and active in advancing the president's agenda."

He said online signup sheets aren't likely to reflect actual turnout and noted that "there are 85 events this weekend in Washington State and more than 300 in California." He said 3,300 have been scheduled nationwide _ 175 in the District of Colombia, Maryland and Virginia _ and that 30,000 people submitted questions about them.

"We are thrilled with the response to the call for action," he said in an e-mail, noting that "Unlike the campaign, where there was staff on the ground to help build the events" this weekend's meetings "are all volunteer generated."

Still, several supporters said the tactic of using house parties to generate enthusiasm that was so successful for Obama the candidate faces an uphill battle as Obama the president tries to mold his supporters into a post-election lobbying force.

"A lot of people, once Obama got elected, thought, 'Well, we're done now,' " said Cheryl Kopec, 47, an Iraq war veteran who lives in the Fern Hill section of Tacoma. As of Friday afternoon, Kopec had filled only nine of 30 seats for an economic stimulus gathering at the local library.

"I remain interested in the idea of house parties, but only if they result in something," said Leslie Ries, 41, a University of Maryland ecologist with two infants at home who'd volunteered for Obama but is sitting out house parties. "I mean, do we develop a position paper and send it in or what?"

Mack, the house-party proponent from Sacramento, said that comparing the pre-election turnout to the upcoming one was unfair.

Obama campaign house-party meetings were "truly about something that united everybody," Mack said. "This weekend, what we're talking about is the economy, and some people just don't want to be involved in that. Their issue is health care or climate change or getting out of Iraq."

Her theory — and Obama's hope — is that when subgroup participation is added up, the total will be as impressive as his campaign numbers were.

The overall Obama policy-support effort, known as "Organizing for America," got under way last Friday and received the president's summons to action on the stimulus on Monday.

Despite the tight time frame, LaVera said the effort would yield about 3,000 economic stimulus sessions nationwide.

Some house parties — maybe a quarter — don't appear on the "Organizing for America" sign-up site, the source of McClatchy's tally, because their hosts are inviting only friends. Of those that did appear, the typical house party that McClatchy tallied was less than half full Friday afternoon.

(David Coffey contributed to this story.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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