Obama's Secret Weapon: OFA

In a season when the political punditry stampeded its way into prognostications of Democratic political disaster this fall, it is well to remember that Democrats -- and the Obama political operation -- have a weapon, the importance of which Washington types don't fully understand: Organizing for America (OFA).

There is no question that the mid-term elections are fraught with political danger. For Democrats to hold our own this fall will require that we do six things:

* Demonstrate to voters that we are fighting tooth and nail for the fundamental change that they supported in 2008 -- and still support today;

* Deliver real economic recovery for average Americans that average people can begin to see for themselves by next fall;

* Pass a legislative agenda that lays the foundation for long-term, widely-shared economic growth -- health care reform, re-regulation of Wall Street, creation of clean energy jobs, and comprehensive immigration reform;

* Frame the battle in personal, populist terms that puts the blame for our economic crisis where it belongs -- on the Wall Street bankers whose reckless greed cost millions of Americans their well-being;

* Continue to take the offensive at framing the entire debate in terms of our progressive values;

* Engage everyday Americans directly in the many battles -- including the November elections -- that will come at us rapid-fire for the next ten months.

OFA provides a vehicle to help accomplish each of these goals that has never existed before.

Organizing for America (OFA) -- formerly Obama for America -- was reorganized after the 2008 election with the object of creating a permanent army of ordinary Americans that could create the grassroots fire necessary to pass Obama's change agenda. Over the first months of 2009, the organization hired staff, set up local operations, began to transform itself from a purely electoral operation into one that could simultaneously line up Congressional votes for Obama's initiatives -- and demonstrate to Members of Congress that it would have their backs next November.

It was built upon the premise that fundamental change is impossible without massive grassroots activity. After all, the insurance companies, big Wall Street banks, energy industry and the Chamber of Commerce had no plans to roll over and play dead just because Obama had been elected with a mandate for change.

The correctness of that assumption became starkly clear in August when the right wing organized -- and big business financed -- the Tea Party movement to try to put a stake in the heart of health insurance reform.

In 2005, I served as the National Field Director of the campaign to stop the Bush proposal to privatize Social Security. That year we ran a massive, successful effort to kill privatization during the August recess. When Republicans returned to Washington in September of that year, they marched into the Republican Leadership's office and demanded that they throw in the towel on Social Security privatization.

Exactly the same thing would have happened with health care reform in September of 2009 had OFA had not stepped up to coordinate a counter-offensive. For those of us working to pass health insurance reform it was like the cavalry arriving over the hill. OFA chaired a task force of progressive organizations -- and mobilized thousands of health care reform supporters to attend town meetings across the country. That effort turned the tide in the last weeks of August and saved health insurance reform.

AFSCME, SEIU, the AFL-CIO, MoveOn, Americans United for Change, Families USA, AARP, NEA and especially Health Care for America Now (HCAN) -- that spearheaded the fight -- have all played critical roles in this battle. None of them would dispute the decisive role played by OFA.

Together these organizations generated millions of contacts with Congress supporting health insurance reform. But no one has produced more than OFA, which by itself has generated over a million calls to Congress.

Last year, OFA organized their members to take over 2.5 million individual actions -- calls, door knocks, emails, faxes, and letters to the editor. They have held over 25,000 events across the country on health care reform just since last June.

In one day in August, 65,000 OFA members descended upon the offices of Members of Congress in support of health care reform.

You can say without question, that if OFA did not exist, that the House and Senate would not be negotiating the final terms of health insurance reform -- that there would have been no health care reform at all.

There are many Progressives -- like me -- who believe strongly that to fulfill the promise of health insurance reform, we must soon have a strong public option. I believe that before many of the provisions of the current bill go into effect, that we will have a public option. But that will happen because we are organized to defeat the insurance industry on the ground. To do it, we can't just complain that it's not as easy to get it done as we had hoped. We have to continue the kind of organizing that OFA has been doing for the last three years -- involving millions of everyday people. In other words we have to live by the slogan: "don't whine, organize."

Let's be clear. If some of the dire pundit prognostications come true, Progressives won't have any hope at all of passing our agenda beginning in 2011. If we lose vast numbers of seats in Congress, this extraordinary opportunity for serious progressive change will be brought to a screeching halt.

To avoid that fate, we have to deliver economic and legislative success this year. We have to pass a health care bill that provides affordable health insurance to most Americans, eliminates pre-existing conditions, reins in the power of the insurance industry and doesn't tax average workers' benefits. We have to re-regulate the Big Wall Street Banks. We have to pass comprehensive immigration reform and take major steps on the road toward creating clean energy jobs.

Most importantly, we have to deliver jobs for everyday Americans -- beginning this year.

And in the process we have to keep the base of our party energized. In 1994, the Republicans took over Congress mostly because Democrats did not go to the polls. That cannot be allowed to happen again.

To all of these tasks, the organized energy of OFA's 13 million members is indispensable - just as it was to the campaign that elected Barack Obama president in the first place. It is indispensable online, in the precincts, in town meetings and going door to door.

In the fall of 2007 there was deep pundit skepticism that the Obama campaign's enormous investment in intensive, no stone unturned, grassroots organizing had any chance at all of vaulting the underdog Obama to victory in the Iowa caucuses. The campaign provided the infrastructure and culture that mobilized the activity of thousands of Labor and party activists, and thousands more average individual voters. Of course by Election Day in 2008, no one any longer doubted the power of grassroots political organizing. But in Washington, it's easy to forget.

The thing that made the Obama field operation unique was its culture. Two aspects were particularly critical:

* It taught everyone in the organization how to think like an organizer -- how to engage people based on their own self-interests and engage those interests to further the goals of the campaign. It believed in fully engaging volunteers -- not simply using them to accomplish a task. It was committed to empowering everyone in the organization. OFA understood the central secret of good organizing: that meaning is the greatest motivator -- that you get self-motivation through inspiration. OFA understood that for someone to feel meaningful -- to feel inspired -- two things were required. First they had to feel that they were part of something that was very important and larger than themselves. But second, they had to believe that they could personally play a significant role in achieving the goal. That understanding of what motivates people has permeated the organization to this day.

* To its core, the Obama field operation was committed to excellence in execution - to the proposition that no stone could ever be left unturned -- that no task was ever too small to be done right. That's why it won caucuses in tiny states. That's why it never left votes on the table.

In my 40 years of work doing grassroots organizing for issue and electoral campaigns I have never seen a better field operation that the one created by OFA. It was, without doubt, the best field program in American political history.

Many of the same organizers who build OFA during the campaign have created the new OFA. They have crafted a growing infrastructure that will allow millions of everyday people to team up with MoveOn members, rank and file union activists, and leaders from the faith, minority and women's communities to take on the vested interests in every corner of America. Just as it did in the Iowa caucuses, that infrastructure could well provide the foundation for surprising victories - both in Congress and the November elections -- that the Washington pundits think are impossible. After all, surprising the pundits is what OFA does best.

Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the recent book: "Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win," available on Amazon.com.