What happens to the most successful online presidential campaign organization after its presidential candidate is elected? President Obama decided to transform it into an organization geared primarily to support his policy agenda. The idea seemed promising. The grassroots structure and channels that had been forged, together with the volunteers that had been enlisted, would now be harnessed towards canvassing public support for the president’s policies.
However, some things will inevitably be different. First, the personnel. Many decided to move on, probably due to the very different nature of OFA’s work. Second, the organization would be run from the Democratic Party rather than just a just-for-Obama vehicle. Third, the nature of its work. Instead of the more exciting, fast-paced work of political campaigning, it will be the more mundane, daily grind of soliciting public feedback and support for Obama’s policy initiatives.
There are supporters and detractors to OFA. Those for the idea, not least some Republicans, say that it keeps Obama’s core constituency energized. Some Democrats are not exactly enthused, concerned that the refreshed set-up will generate greater pressure on Democrat lawmakers. Finally, it runs the risk of alienating supporters who will inevitably have different views from Obama’s policies on specific issues.
Surely such a successful grassroots organization is so valuable that it must be kept well for the next election in four years’ time, when online proliferation is set to be even more widespread, and the returns from a good online strategy and organization, even greater. The question is how and in what form this organization should exist. Obama for America was a unique organization with a very specific mission. It is hard to just morph it into something else without it losing something in the process. Given the larger objective of keeping its existence, I would suppose just getting it to do virtually anything just to keep its engine running, would be a good thing in itself. But might as well make a virtue out of necessity, and let it serve some useful purpose in the meantime.
Obama has made OFA something quite close to the original OFA. However, my opinion is that, judging from its results, it has not worked out that well. A look at the Wikipedia page of OFA yields underwhelming reading—it has only ever done work pertinent to Obama’s healthcare reform, and not very significant work at that. It has also come under criticism from some quarters (see one example from the Washington Post) for the way it has (or has not) worked.
In my home country Singapore, the government has its own structure to gather feedback and send out feelers on legislation and policies. This is not conflated with partisan politics and elections. I feel what Obama has done with OFA has served to confuse. What originally started out as a clearly-partisan campaign platform, will find life difficult as a platform for government policy. This is because of the fundamental difference in the target audience. In campaigning, it exists and is designed to reach out to Democrats and undecideds. In policy, it cannot be the same audience, lest it alienates further those who did not vote for Obama, and receives feedback from those who are least likely to criticize it.
When so much of the debate over the last four years has been about bridging the partisan divide, the net effect of OFA is to exacerbate the problem. Obama could have done this better by maintaining it as a just-for-Obama vehicle, rather than let it become an organ of the Democrat party. Better still, keep the organization trained on campaigning and election business, and if he needed an organization for his policies, create a new, non-partisan one. He should remember that he campaigns to his supporters, but devises policies for all Americans.