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Facebook and Filibusters

How Obama's Netroots boom went bust in Congress.

12:00 AM, Aug 27, 2009 • By GARY ANDRES
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President Obama's election campaign dazzled the political world with its use of the Internet as an electoral tool. Fundraising, voter communication, and citizen mobilization were just a few of the tactics that reached new levels of intensity, sophistication and success via the Internet. More than any other time in history, the mobile device rode shotgun with the precinct captain.

Following his victory, many believed Organizing for America--the outfit that followed the presidential campaign to keep volunteers and now housed at the Democratic National Committee--would continue the same level of political wizardry promoting Obama's legislative agenda.

But the high-tech political organization has some bugs. So far the White House has found it difficult to replicate the energy and success of its political campaign in promoting congressional initiatives. Here's why.

Clearly it's not a question of technology or electronic infrastructure. Organizing for America has over 13 million people on its email list. It communicates regularly with supporters. Like the campaign, it has hired paid organizers in most states. The website provides a host of advocacy tools, including the ability to email your neighbors, "Tweet" your senator, send a letter to the editor and add your name to a petition supporting the president's health care reform efforts. So what's the problem?

Most of it comes down to the difference between electoral and legislative politics. During campaigns, the message is simple and straightforward: give money, knock on doors, and ask for votes. Mix those simple ingredients with a lot of anti-Bush energy present in 2008, and it produced a powerful political concoction that fueled the Obama campaign.

Legislation is more nuanced and complicated. "We had a lot of folks who would just walk in off the street and offer to help get people to vote for Barack Obama," one former presidential campaign staffer said. "It's one thing to ask people to go knock on doors or make phone calls saying 'vote for Obama.' It's something else to get them to come to your house and talk about health care legislation."

It's also unclear if all of President Obama's political supporters agree with details of his health reform plan. True, many will embrace whatever the White House wants. But a lot of liberal Democrats clearly prefer a so-called "single-payer option"--where government runs the entire health care system. This approach, while popular on the left, is a non-starter when it comes to what could pass even in a Democrat-controlled Congress. Single-payer advocates--many of whom supported Obama for president--may balk at helping him enact what they consider a watered-down legislative proposal.

Keeping people motivated after a campaign ends poses another challenge. Volunteers just get worn out. Writing about a recent round of health care reform town halls in Iowa, the New York Times's Jeff Zeleny observed, "But even among those who turned out for the meetings, many of whom had Obama buttons affixed to their shirts and spoke glowingly of the president, there was a sense of fatigue at the prospect of returning to the political calisthenics the Obama army once required."

It's also unclear if the faithful talk to anyone but the converted. Many presidential supporters who attended August town hall meetings would likely agree to anything Obama asked for in health care. They are true believers responding to the president's preaching. But many doubt if undecided citizens show up. "It's a waste of time," Zeleny quotes one participant in an Iowa meeting, who added the discussions were tantamount to "talking to the choir."

Finally, another law of political physics emerged this summer. Sometimes mobilization produces counter-mobilization. While Organizing for America tried to whip up support for the president's plan, other groups responded by raising the intensity of their opposition. Political scientist George C. Edwards III highlights this phenomenon in his book On Deaf Ears: The Limits of the Bully Pulpit. Edwards argues that permanent campaign tactics are sometimes antithetical to governing. In elections, 50 percent plus one wins. But those same tools can lead to hardening of negotiating positions, making compromise more difficult, "as both sides posture as much to mobilize an intense minority of supporters as to persuade the other side."

President Obama's political apparatus may be trying to help the White House win the shoot-out over health care reform. But by confusing the difference between campaigning and governing, they might be sending Obama's biggest domestic policy initiative off into the sunset--in tatters.

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