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E.J. Dionne

Grass roots growing up

WASHINGTON — While the nation's capital obsesses over who will be the next pick for Barack Obama's Cabinet, the president-elect's lieutenants are engaged with what may be a more important long-term issue: What will become of Obama's vast grass-roots network?

Electoral campaigns, like circus tents, quickly disappear after the show is over. But Obama is our first community-organizer president, and he sees the way he got elected as being almost as crucial as the fact that he won.

Over and over, Obama has spoken of change coming from "the bottom up," and the organization he built down to the precinct and neighborhood level could be an agent of that change. But how?

The discussion among Obama's lieutenants focuses on several alternatives. In one view, the Obama apparatus could be integrated into the Democratic Party and be run through the Democratic National Committee. Many of Obama's top lieutenants, including his campaign manager, David Plouffe, are veterans of traditional Democratic politics.

Turning the Obama network into a vast national party organization could give Democrats durable advantages it has not enjoyed since the New Deal era, when Franklin Roosevelt built an alliance between local political machines and a growing labor movement.

But Plouffe himself has been much affected by the new way of campaigning he oversaw. His regular video reports to the troops turned him into something of a hero to the Obama faithful.

Moreover, Steve Hildebrand, Obama's deputy campaign manager, has argued that members of the Obama network include many who are averse to traditional party politics: young people with weak party loyalties, independents and even some Republicans. He has been suggesting that the Obama apparatus might instead constitute itself as an independent political organization — friendly and parallel to the Democratic Party, but a separate entity. Obama supporters are also discussing how local Obama networks could integrate themselves into their communities through various forms of service work and activism. Obama's Web site is currently raising money for the victims of recent Southern California fires.

The importance of cultivating the network and keeping it intact was underscored by an online survey that Plouffe sent out to supporters. The survey asked: "How would you like to see this organization move forward in the months and years ahead?"

Offering a clue as to what Obama insiders are thinking, the survey asked supporters to rank four objectives: helping the new administration "pass legislation through grass-roots efforts"; helping elect state and local candidates "who share the same vision for our country"; training others in the organizing techniques perfected by the campaign; and "working on local issues that impact our communities."

Notably absent from that list was the word "Democrat."

Yet there is only so much distance that Obama either can or wants to keep from his party. He is, in important ways, a loyal Chicago organization Democrat. Plouffe is currently using the Obama fundraising network to help the Democratic National Committee erase its deficit.

Obama supporters have been moving into Georgia to help Democrat Jim Martin in his Dec. 2 runoff campaign against incumbent Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss. Yet Obama himself has yet to make clear how forcefully he'll intervene in a state that he lost. A Martin victory would signal the depth of the nation's desire for change, but a new president with soaring popularity may not want to subject himself to such an early test on not-entirely-hospitable terrain.

One Democratic strategist said that parts of the Obama organization are still mistrustful of the national committee as a redoubt for Hillary and Bill Clinton loyalists. But this view is waning since Obama, as the party's undisputed leader, will inevitably take over the party apparatus, and he is making peace with the Clintons.

The urgency of the organizational discussion signals that Obama's lieutenants see the 2008 campaign as having fundamentally altered the contours of American politics.

Democrats believe (and many Republicans fear) that Obama allowed his party and its allies to take an enormous leap forward in both technological sophistication and grass-roots activism. Building on those gains is a high priority for a man who sees organizing not only as instrumental, but also as a way of transforming democracy itself.

E.J. Dionne's e-mail address is

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Grass roots growing up 11/23/08 [Last modified: Thursday, November 4, 2010 10:08am]
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