This pattern of deadlock has become as frustrating as it is predictable, but Obama has had a unique answer to this sort of obstructionism since he was elected.
Organizing for America, the organization that grew out of the Obama for America campaign structure after the 2008 elections, could have been a tool that allowed the White House to support good progressive ideas wherever they flourished, instead of waiting for a Congress that clearly has been bent on hurting Obama even if it hurts the rest of the country.
In the months after his election, Obama had an advantage no other president has ever had: An e-mail list of more than 13 million Americans who were engaged, excited, and eager to communicate directly with the White House.
Do you remember the first message they sent to that list? I do. It was a few months after the election and I was ready to get to work. My sleeves were rolled up, and the first e-mail… asked me for a donation.
Instead of being a fund-raiser for the past three years focusing primarily on getting Obama re-elected, OFA could have capitalized on the excitement and the enthusiasm of those 13 million organizers, and built a network sharing best practices, trumpeting the successes of the groups who’s work produced local solutions, and vesting communities with the ability to determine where their own work should be going. OFA would only have had act as the spark to get projects started that tackled local issues in education, health care, employment and equal justice, and then have acted as the connective tissue that allowed people to feel like they were creating real change in their own communities while being a part of something bigger.
Public-private partnerships work, as Obama mentioned repeatedly in the 2012 State of the Union. The White House, in this new version of OFA, could be the convener to get rooftop agriculture experts in the room with New York City developers.
It could be connecting major corporate dollars with local employment projects that are lifted up by the network of excited and engaged organizers.
And to quote Obama himself: “Michelle and Jill Biden have worked with American businesses to secure a pledge of 135,000 jobs for veterans and their families. And tonight, I'm proposing a Veterans Job Corps that will help our communities hire veterans as cops and firefighters.”
The office of the White House has the clout to be creating those partnerships. They just need people with ideas to feel like they have a place for those ideas to go.
Obama could have used this army of loyal organizers for more than just local solutions: this model would end up supporting the political system that nurtures it. There is a “general and longstanding trend” that people who are civically engaged first tend to be more involved in electoral politics, and its easy to imagine an organized network of do-gooders being ready to fight for the president that empowered them.
Turning an entire network loose on the problems that we face as a nation might not be clean and efficient. It can be ungainly and probably hard to control. As we learn every day at the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network, there are many situations in which grassroots networks take you in surprising and unpredictable directions. But, unlike Congress, networks get things done. They build leaders and they build loyalty (two things that the Obama administration could really use right now in the under-35 demographic).
The good news: we’re doing it anyway. We aren’t sitting around and waiting for Congress, and we are working outside the gridlocked power structures to find ways to get to impact, solve 2012 and plan for 2040. Other organizations like the Young Invincibles are putting out tools that impact economic problems in tangible ways here and now.
But if Obama does win in November, and if he’s serious about getting things done and getting back to work, he shouldn’t wait on a Congress that has proven again and again to be unable to rise to the unprecedented challenges facing our nation. He should go back to his community organizer roots, and use OFA the way it could have been used all along.
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