President Obama’s second inaugural address struck a populist tone, but the real news for progressives came last Friday when it was announced that Obama’s campaign organization would continue under a new name, Organizing for Action. Headed by Obama 2012 campaign manager Jim Messina, the new organization will initially focus on three key progressive issues: gun control, immigration reform, and climate change. The decision to use the Obama campaign base to mobilize around issues reverses the mistake made after the 2008 victory, when the huge Obama for America grassroots base was cut adrift from mobilizing behind the President’s first term agenda.
After Obama’s 2008 victory I wrote an article, “After the Victory, Engaging Obama Volunteers.” I saw the massive grassroots campaign that brought Obama the presidency as constituting the mobilizing base for his presidency. But in a decision Obama now admits was a mistake, the operation was cut off after the election.
My enthusiasm for Organizing for Action (under the chairmanship of Messina but whose daily operations will be run by Executive Director Jon Carson) is based on two factors.
First, Obama has been much more effective selling his proposals on the campaign trail than he has as President. Organizing for Action boosts the President’s campaign mindset, and its clear from Messina and Carson’s involvement that Organizing for Action will be far more ambitious than the limited Obama for America that emerged in 2009.
Second, the Obama campaign has activist lists whose numbers dramatically exceed that of Move On, the AFL-CIO, and other external progressive mobilizing groups. In order to win on big issues like comprehensive immigration reform, it will take such an all hands on deck mobilization.
Obama’s support for Organizing for Action shows that he is serious about taking the momentum from November and immediately applying it now. And with the debt ceiling issue now pushed back until June and Republicans in disarray, the timing is perfect for passing gun control and immigration reform.
The question on gun control is whether Organizing for Action will go into House Republican districts and publicly target representatives opposing or not adequately supporting key portions of the bill. As I urged when the President was trying to get his stimulus package through in early 2009, the best way to win these legislative fights is through the strategy pioneered by Neighbor to Neighbor in the Congressional fights over military aid to El Salvador in the 1980’s.
This means high profile targeting of representatives who can be made to feel so uncomfortable about their pro-gun position that they will flip. Enough House Republicans’ can be won over to pass strong gun controls, but this will not happen absent strong public pressure in their home districts.
There has been a lot of optimism about immigration reform since Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio expressed support for a plan not that far from the President’s likely bill. Yet enacting a strong immigration bill will also require resources beyond the coalitions of groups that have not been able to get a bill through in the past.
Organizing for Action can dramatically increase the grassroots pressure on wavering legislators by bringing new resources and a broader base into the struggle. And for all of Rubio’s talk, there is a past pattern of Republicans who sound open to Obama measures being yanked back into opposition by the pressures of the right-wing media machine.
While Messina announced that climate change would be among Organizing for Action’s early priorities, its not clear what this means. Obama highlighted climate change in his inaugural address, but left unstated what specific legislation he will propose.
Obama stresses the importance of U.S. energy independence, but that’s consistent with his failure to reject fracking. It’s also consistent with supporting the Keystone XL pipeline, which makes a mockery of talk about combatting climate change.
With the two key environmental positions both open (EPA and Secretary of Interior), it’s likely that green groups will be spending the next weeks working to get preferred candidates appointed. Both positions have vast administrative decision-making discretion, and Obama’s choice of appointees will speak volumes.
Obama increasingly sounds like someone who feels he missed opportunities in his first term and does not want to repeat past mistakes. We will know by the spring if his efforts on gun control and immigration reform have moved beyond past attempts, and this will also tell us whether Organizing for Action has made a difference.
Randy Shaw is the author of The Activist’s Handbook and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.