White House to Obama Activists: Let Them Eat (Birthday) Cake

It is one of the enduring yet neglected mysteries of Obama's first term.

Why hasn't the massive, record-breaking volunteer and fundraising apparatus built during the 2008 Obama campaign exerted more influence in Washington?

On Wednesday, Organizing for America (OFA), which grew out of the campaign's 13-million-person network and is housed at the Democratic National Committee, is asking its members to throw "birthday parties" for the President. The big guy turns 49. Supporters can find local events on an interactive map and upload photos of Obama-themed birthday cakes. These are the kind of gatherings that can replenish social capital by bringing people together around Obama's personal appeal -- there's no policy agenda or legislative strategy on the agenda -- and recruit volunteers for the mid-terms.  OFA has made some progress on this front, as I documented in a study about the group's first year, while coming up short on efforts to pressure Congress or tap bottom-up participation.

The BBC's Katie Connolly has a new article about OFA keyed to the birthday drive, and we talked a bit about the tradeoffs facing the organization. Here's an excerpt from her article:

OFA is attempting to use the president's birthday to provide both a boost for the commander-in-chief and encourage willing volunteers for Democrats in the mid-terms. "The events that focus on anniversaries or that focus on the president as a personality or someone that people like and identify with tend to do well, so its understandable that they continue to try to tap that enthusiasm," Ari Melber, a writer for The Nation who has studied OFA, told the BBC. "However, everyone knows there is significant concern from Obama's base about his progress on changing Washington." ... The Washington Post reports that, in what looks like a spot of campaign nostalgia, OFA is urging supporters to bust out their campaign '08 "yes we can" T-shirts, hats and buttons and wear them on Wednesday. But while recapturing that campaign zeitgeist seems desirable, Mr Melber warns there are risks, particularly for some of the most active campaign supporters who have become some of the most disillusioned.

"There is always a risk that if you only do these kumbaya events and you don't give people meaningful voice then they may tune out," Mr Melber says. "Most of these people would still like to see Mr Obama re-elected, so we are not talking about a real crisis in his political support. But walking around with a button or wishing the president a happy birthday doesn't really achieve anything either.

Another key factor, of course, is that the White House has generally boxed in OFA as a soft-touch for supportive incumbents and a message amplifier for administration message, which restricts the kind of strategies, activities and events they can sponsor.

The entire BBC article is here and my OFA study can be viewed here or downloaded at the Social Science Research Network. This piece was originally published in The Nation.