President Obama's ability to enact health-care legislation and move the rest of his ambitious agenda may rest, at least in part, on the shoulders of 16 people who crowded around a table Saturday at the Norristown headquarters of the Montgomery County Democratic Committee.
They and thousands of others around the country are volunteers for Organizing for America, the political structure built from the grassroots network that helped elect Obama in 2008.
"We are the change that the president has promised," Greg Myers, a data analyst from Chester County, told the group as he led them through a PowerPoint training session on how to spread the Obama message. The trainees were male and female, black and white, and ranged from college students to retirees.
While the "permanent campaign" of 24/7 political combat in the media is nothing new, Obama is attempting something no White House has ever done: transforming the field machinery of an electoral campaign into a standing grassroots army to push issues and legislation.
As tomorrow's first anniversary of Obama's inauguration approaches, Organizing for America - which says it is active in every state and congressional district - has made its presence felt on the president's economic program and other administration priorities, but most prominently on the health-care debate in Congress.
As part of that effort, OFA officials said volunteers across the country, including in Pennsylvania, have made more than 500,000 calls to Massachusetts voters on behalf of the Democratic nominee in today's special U.S. Senate election, State Attorney General Martha Coakley. She is battling with Republican Scott Brown in a race that could determine the fate of the health-care legislation.
"These are real people going community by community, door by door, and there's no better advocacy than neighbors," Elizabeth Lucas, Pennsylvania state director for OFA, said in an interview. "We are able to capitalize on their energy and enthusiasm."
Lucas and others in the organization say OFA has not received proper credit for mobilizing on a health-insurance overhaul. Nationally, the group says it has inspired voters to take 2.5 million actions - from signing a petition to calling a member of Congress - in support of the legislation.
In Pennsylvania alone, OFA has staged more than 1,100 events on health care since June - phone banks, door-to-door canvassing, issue round tables, and rallies. That activity, the group said, has generated about 8,000 letters to the editor and motivated 13,000 Pennsylvanians to call or visit their representatives in Congress.
"They are everywhere, a presence throughout the state," said Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.), who has held several conference calls about health-care legislation with OFA volunteers. "It's been very helpful. They're the only thing we have other than organized labor out there to take on the tea partyers and the conservative activists."
It's difficult to measure the precise impact of OFA activities on members of Congress. One Pennsylvania Democrat - Rep. Chris Carney of Susquehanna County - who voted for the House health-care bill mentioned at the time that calls to his office were running 2-1 in favor of it.
Still, experts say, it's much easier to mobilize people around a political campaign than the complex and sometimes dry grind of legislating.
"I see effort, but I'm not sure I see effectiveness," said Rutgers University political scientist Ross K. Baker. "These kinds of groups are so tied to the enthusiasm generated by the candidate. You can't just take the DNA of a campaign organization and transplant it to one organized around legislative issues, especially one as large and diffuse as health care."
OFA, a project of the Democratic National Committee, has, in Pennsylvania, nine paid staffers and 60 volunteer community organizers who work 15 to 20 hours a week building neighborhood teams in their areas through canvassing, social networking, and e-mailing.
During Saturday's training, the volunteers learned about the "snowflake model" of organizing, practiced how to personalize the message they take to voters by telling their own stories, and were told about the importance of recording information from their contacts for melding into the massive OFA database.
Also, don't be nasty. "Respecting the beliefs of those who differ from our own is so important," Myers said.
The group also involves members in community service, such as gathering goods for food banks. Yesterday, OFA volunteers in Philadelphia were beautifying Olney High School as part of the Martin Luther King Day of Service.
Volunteer Siobhan Currenty, who was at the training session, was making calls last night to get out the vote for Coakley. She campaigned for Obama on her campus at West Chester University and now runs a regular Wednesday night phone bank for OFA, pushing the health-care bill.
"I really enjoy it," said Currenty, 20, an education major from Ambler. "I'm realizing that you can reach out to the community and make a difference for a more informed electorate."
Some OFA volunteers were not campaign veterans. Kelly Fraasch of Pittsburgh voted for Obama but joined OFA because she believes health care needs an overhaul. Her daughter Taylor, 9, was born more than three months premature, and insurers refused to cover some of the girl's care because the prematurity was considered a preexisting condition.
"I'm seeing too many families either without health care or worried about losing it," said Fraasch, 34.
Myers, 55, got involved in the Obama election campaign in the summer of 2008 and has stayed on.
"I'm one of those out-of-control volunteers who took a vacation for the entire week before Election Day," he said. "I found Barack Obama to be an inspiration. I hadn't heard such a message of progressivism and hope since Bobby Kennedy, when I was 14. I thought I'd never hear it again."
State of the Union Speech Next Wed.
President Obama will deliver his State of the Union address at 9 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 27.
The speech, delivered before a joint session
of Congress, will be broadcast live on national television and streamed on the White House Web site, press secretary Robert Gibbs said yesterday.
- Associated Press