President Barack Obama’s decision to launch his own political organization has some Democrats wondering: Is he just in it for himself?
Obama’s new group, Organizing for Action, will focus on his policy agenda – not on electing Democratic candidates – by raising unlimited amounts of cash and accessing the president’s secret list of 20 million supporters, volunteers and donors.
The operation won’t share money, resources or the priceless Obama email list with the Democratic National Committee or campaign committees that help elect members of Congress, governors and legislators. And it has no plans to coordinate efforts, leading some Democrats to worry that it will take money and manpower away from the party as it heads into the 2014 elections for control of Congress.
“There’s only so much money to go around in Democratic circles. There’s a limited pool of resources,” said Gilda Cobb Hunter, a South Carolina legislator and a member of the Democratic National Committee. “Why can’t we strengthen one entity?”
Several DNC members said in interviews that they weren’t told about Organizing for Action’s formation until it was publicly announced in January. They said that when they’d complained, they were chastised and told by national and state party leaders not to speak publicly. Most spoke to McClatchy only on the condition of anonymity in order to talk candidly about the internal party dispute.
Party Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a congresswoman from Florida, tried to alleviate concerns in a conference call with Democrats in March, stressing that the groups wouldn’t compete for money and resources in part because they had different missions.
“What I took away was they heard the complaints of the body,” said one DNC member who was on the conference call.
The DNC declined to comment last week. White House officials have praised the group for helping to promote the president’s agenda.
Days before his second term began, Obama announced that his campaign would morph into a nonprofit, tax-exempt group to rally support across the country for his agenda. “Organizing for Action will be an unparalleled force in American politics,” he told supporters.
Other presidents have created or championed organizations outside the major national parties. Bill Clinton, for example, embraced the Democratic Leadership Council, an organization that pushed a moderate agenda.
But that functioned more as a think tank. And Obama is the first to form a group that will raise millions of dollars as it seeks to perpetuate a year-round campaign for him.
The decision to create Organizing for Action separate from the DNC, where a similar group was housed after the 2008 election, has prompted some Democrats to accuse Obama of focusing more on his legacy and less on his party.
A Democratic consultant who’s worked on campaigns across the nation said contributors who faced a choice would donate to Organizing for Action rather than to another Democratic campaign group because of the president’s connection. “If you are a donor, which do you go to?” he asked, also speaking only on the condition of anonymity lest he alienate fellow Democrats.
Democratic officials say Obama wants to ensure the party’s success in the 2014 elections, committing to appear at more than a dozen fundraisers for House of Representatives candidates and several more for the DNC. He’ll hold his first events for the DNC and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee on Wednesday and Thursday in San Francisco.
Don Fowler, a former DNC chairman, has heard from fellow Democrats questioning Organizing for Action’s role, but he said he didn’t anticipate a shortage of resources. “I don’t see this as a distraction,” he said.
In its first two months, Organizing for Action held hundreds of events across the nation, started raising money and blasted out emails to supporters focused on the president’s top issues: curbing gun violence, fighting climate change, overhauling the immigration system and solving the nation’s fiscal problems through a mixture of tax revisions or increases and budget cuts.
Republican National Committee spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski acknowledges that Obama and his team have taught her party a thing or two but said Republicans had taken notice that the president was spending his time and resources on himself. “Everything the Obama campaign and the Democrats did was outside the scope of the DNC, which will leave them at a disadvantage on everything from lists to fundraising,” she said.
Chicago-based Organizing for Action is headed by Obama’s campaign manager, Jim Messina, and other former Obama staffers from the White House and campaign. So far, it’s hired a few dozen staff members.
Organizing for Action was created as an advocacy organization, which means it can't share money or resources with the DNC. It leases its email list from the Obama campaign, which hasn’t shut down yet.
The group calls itself nonpartisan, though it won’t push anything that deviates from the president’s positions. It runs Obama’s Facebook page, which is “liked” by 35 million people, and his Twitter account, which is followed by 29 million people.
That means the group might find itself opposing not just Republicans but also Democrats, including the more conservative members of the party on gun control and the more liberal members on fiscal issues.
“We are not electoral,” said Katie Hogan, a spokeswoman for Organizing for Action who worked for the Obama campaign. “We are an issue-based group that is working to release the stranglehold from special interests on the policymaking process.”
Adam Green, a co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, supports the organization but will be troubled if it lobbies for certain changes to entitlement programs such as Social Security, which Obama supports.
Green said his organization would oppose cuts to benefits, but not other cost savings measures such as allowing Medicare and Medicaid to negotiate drug prices.
If the president’s political operation worries Democrats, it alarms good government groups, who say it appears ready to trade access for money because of allegations that Obama would meet quarterly with large donors. “The president is waving goodbye to those long-ago promises that he would change the way Washington works,” Common Cause President Bob Edgar said when Organizing for Action was formed.
White House spokesman Jay Carney has dismissed those claims repeatedly in recent weeks. But after the criticism, the organization announced in early March that it wouldn’t accept corporate funds – in addition to money from federal lobbyists or foreign donors – and would disclose contributions over $250. The group can raise unlimited funds and isn’t subject to Federal Election Commission disclosure rules because it’s a nonprofit that doesn’t dole out money to candidates.
Pat Waak, a former Democratic Party chairwoman in Colorado, said some Democrats worried that the party no longer would be able to motivate the same number of supporters Obama did through Organizing for Action now that the group had moved out of the state party’s headquarters.
“The party structure would always like to be in control. I understand that,” Waak said. “We have to figure out how to keep everyone engaged.”