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Obama's Army of Lobbyists

A new twist on the permanent campaign.

11:00 PM, Jan 21, 2009 • By GARY ANDRES
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President Barack Obama's presidential campaign set new standards for success in fundraising, voter mobilization, and Internet political savvy.


But this, of course, is old news.


What's less known is that he is creating one of the largest, most sophisticated lobbying organizations in history -- a new tool to help promote his agenda.


Most believe the transition from campaigning to governing ended on the West Front of the Capitol this week when the new president took the oath of office. Yet President Obama and his electoral architect, David Plouffe, expect to continue and build upon their mobilization efforts. The Bully Pulpit is about to get more crowded, as millions of grassroots voices join together to aid the new president by lobbying lawmakers.


In the months ahead, Obama's followers plan an unprecedented continuation of his electoral machine -- giving new meaning to the term "permanent campaign." Instead of moving his political apparatus into traditional structures, such as the Democratic National Committee or a White House Office of Political Affairs, Mr. Obama will transition many trusted operatives into a new organization hard to differentiate from the old presidential campaign.


Why ruin a good thing?


Last week Mr. Obama announced the formation of "Organizing for America" (insiders call it "Barack Obama 2.0") -- a way to harness the grassroots energy created by his candidacy and use that energy to support his legislative agenda. Plouffe recently told the Washington Post that the organization is something entirely new. And while not a "political campaign" in the traditional sense, they begin with 13 million email addresses, 4 million contributors, and 2 million active volunteers. Other published reports suggest the new entity could have an annual budget of $75 million or more. Not too shabby. Peter Wallsten wrote in the Los Angeles Times last week that it is " widely considered the country's most potent political machine."


Republican activists agree. "It's very impressive and very smart," a long-time Republican National Committee member told me. "It keeps your core constituency energized and informed; it helps with a governing agenda; and it creates a framework for the reelection campaign."


The idea of mobilizing public support for a presidential agenda is not new. Presidential scholar George Edwards writes in his book On Deaf Ears - The Limits of the Bully Pulpit that in 1976 pollster Pat Caddell wrote a memo to President-elect Carter arguing, " governing with public approval requires a continuing political campaign." Edwards also details how President Eisenhower's congressional liaison, Bryce Harlow, argued that opposing the president (due to his broad support) was unpopular and thus caused congressional opposition to melt.


But Barack Obama 2.0 is unprecedented in size and technological sophistication, and it differs structurally from anything tried before. "Normally both parties would use their national committees (DNC or RNC) to engage and mobilize activists to support the president's agenda after an election" the RNC member told me. Organizing it around a person, as opposed to a party, provides new flexibility. It burnishes Obama's post-partisan narrative and unshackles him from any negatives associated with the Democratic party brand among less partisan voters, independents and even Republicans.


Yet the strategy is not without risk. Wallsten also wrote, "The plan could prompt tensions with members of Congress, who are unlikely to welcome the idea of Obama's political network targeting them from within their own districts. Already, Democratic Party officials on the state level worry that it could become a competing political force that revolves around the president's ambitions while diminishing the needs of down-ballot Democrats."


Online media strategist Jon Henke believes the approach might also exacerbate the problems we already see with the "permanent campaign" mentality in American government. Henke told me this: "It is one thing for a politician to claim they are 'empowering' people. It is quite another to actually share policy-making power with them. If Obama genuinely modifies his policies based on their feedback, then he risks being captured by the most vocal, energetic fringe. If he does not genuinely listen and adjust, then he risks alienating the people who thought they'd been empowered."


President Obama faces institutional governing conditions ripe for success. Large majorities in the House and Senate and a solid electoral mandate all point in this direction. But public support for Obama is another key ingredient. And if past is prologue, permanent popularity is not guaranteed. Edwards quotes Lyndon Johnson as saying, "I keep hitting hard because I know this honeymoon won't last. Every day I lose a little more political capital."


But the new president's vision to build and sustain electoral capital earned last November includes a sardonic twist. Obama won in part by promising to end the power of lobbyists in Washington. So it's a little ironic that a candidate who prevailed by decrying the evils of the advocacy world hopes to bolster his presidency by deploying an army of his own lobbyists. And the president may quickly learn another Washington lesson: His legislative success may depend more on quiet negotiation, compromise, and building trust with Congress than mobilizing millions of noisy activists that try to arm-twist renegade lawmakers.


Gary Andres is vice chairman of research at Dutko Worldwide in Washington D.C. and is a regular contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD Online.