Organizing For Action (OFA)

Organizing-for-ActionThe formation of Organizing For Action (OFA) was announced on January 18, 2013 by First Lady Michelle Obama and OFA national chairman Jim Messina, who had served as President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign manager. Housed inside the Washington headquarters of the National Education Association, OFA was created specifically to succeed Organizing for America, which itself had been formed as a successor to Obama For America—a key force in Obama’s 2008 campaign. But whereas Organizing For America had been housed inside the Democratic National Committee (which in essence controlled it), Organizing For Action (OFA) was set up as a tax-exempt nonprofit group independent of the DNC; it was essentially a sitting president’s re-election campaign that morphed, after the election, into a nonprofit issue-advocacy group dedicated to advancing his agendas—something for which there was no precedent in American politics. As one news report put it: “Obama is the first [president] to form a group that will raise millions of dollars as it seeks to perpetuate a year-round campaign for him.”

OFA’s purpose, as outlined by President Obama himself at the group’s inception, is to “play an active role” in promoting and “speaking out in support of important legislation.” In a January 2013 email to his supporters, Obama wrote: “Together, we’ve … fought for historic legislation and we’ve brought more people than ever before into the political process. Organizing For Action will be a permanent commitment to this mission.” Characterizing OFA as the “next step in our grassroots movement,” Obama said the new entity would become “an unparalleled force in American politics,” serving to “turn our shared values into legislative action and … empower the next generation of leaders in our movement.”

Michelle Obama, in a video introducing OFA to the American public, similarly portrayed the new group as “the next phase of our movement for change,” saying it would help Obama supporters “finish what we started and truly make that change we believe in.” Congratulating those supporters for having “already begun to change our politics,” she emphasized that “the mission of Organizing For Action” is to “change our country” in accordance with President Obama’s vision of how to “bridge [the] divide” between “the world as it is and the world as it should be.”

In its earliest days, OFA identified its key policy concerns as: (a) “raising the debt ceiling” on the federal budget as a means of promoting “the economic well-being of the country”; (b) reminding Americans that “Obamacare is making health care work better for all of us”; (c) “taking steps to make America’s immigration policy more fair, efficient, and just”—chiefly by passing “comprehensive immigration reform” and the DREAM Act, both of which would provide a path-to-citizenship for illegals currently residing in the U.S.; (d) avoiding the allegedly disastrous potential effects of “climate change” by taking steps to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions; and (e) “better protect[ing] our children and our communities by reducing gun violence in America” (via such measures as “banning military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines,” “making schools safer,” and “increasing access to mental health services”).

Organized under the 501(c)(4) section of the U.S. tax code, OFA is permitted to raise unlimited sums of money from any type of donor—be it an individual, a union, or a corporation. As such, it can accept precisely the types of secret, corporate donations that Obama vehemently condemned after they were permitted by a 2010 Supreme Court decision. When OFA was formed, it pledged not to accept money from lobbyists or political action committees, and indicated that it would voluntarily disclose information about its donors.

Tasked with running OFA’s day-to-day affairs as executive director is Jon Carson, who previously served as a national field director for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, a member of the Obama transition team in 2009, chief of staff (under “green jobs czar” Van Jones) of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and, finally, director of the Obama White House’s Office of Public Engagement. Carson also represented Obama at two meetings of the Democracy Alliance. Prior to his involvement with Obama, Carson had worked on many political campaigns, including Al Gore’s 2000 presidential run and Tammy Duckworth’s 2006 campaign in Illinois’ 6th Congressional District. Predicting that OFA would become “the largest grassroots network in the history of politics,” Carson in January 2013 said the new entity would “organiz[e] locally and nationally to put pressure on Washington to act in the interests of ordinary Americans,” and would “train the next generation of grassroots organizers to do this work so that they’ll be ready to take on the fights of the future.”

A January 2013 Los Angeles Times story speculated: “If [OFA] is able to sustain the intensive volunteer effort that propelled Obama twice into the White House, [it] could outstrip the role played by traditional interest groups, such as organized labor and the environmental movement—and challenge the party itself as a center of influence.” In a similar vein, ABC News reported that the decision to keep OFA independent of the DNC “has the potential to diminish the role and influence of the national party, which traditionally inherits the remains of a presidential candidate’s campaign infrastructure.”

OFA’s board of directors includes numerous Obama aides and advisors such as David Plouffe, Stephanie Cutter, Robert Gibbs, Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, Erik Smith, Julianna Smoot, and Frank White. Obama campaign finance director Rufus Gifford, renowned as a big-donor fundraiser, provides OFA with fundraising advice. And longtime Obama advisor and confidante David Axelrod serves as an OFA consultant.

To help Organizing For Action achieve its political goals, Obama and his campaign allies have leased to OFA the sophisticated software and databases (e.g., voter files, 20+ million-name email lists, and donor lists) which they developed for Obama’s re-election campaign. But the Obama team, knowing that those assets could be extremely advantageous to any future Democratic candidate with access to them, has retained ultimate ownership of them. “We’ve never had a presidential campaign that created and retained the kind of information that the Obama 2012 campaign built,” said Democratic strategist and former Obama campaign official Steve Hildebrand. “So it’s going to take [awhile] to figure this new environment out and how it should apply to future elections.” reported on April 1, 2013:

“The operation won’t share money, resources or the priceless Obama email list with the Democratic National Committee or campaign committees that help elect members of Congress, governors and legislators. And it has no plans to coordinate efforts, leading some Democrats to worry that it will take money and manpower away from the party as it heads into the 2014 elections for control of Congress.”
During the third weekend in January 2013, some 4,000 committed Obama campaign supporters convened in Washington, DC to discuss how OFA’s potential could best be harnessed to advance the president’s agendas going forward. A Saturday closed-door meeting, dubbed the “Road Ahead” conference, was held at Washington’s Newseum and was sponsored by Business Forward—an organization funded by a host of major corporations, each of which sent senior executives to participate in a panel on how to promote American economic prosperity. Through its affiliation with Business Forward, OFA established strong ties to those corporations. Invitations for this meeting, which was geared for what Politico described as “the liberal big-money set,” were sent jointly by Obama’s National Finance Committee, the Presidential Inaugural Committee, the Center for American Progress, and Media Matters. The keynote speaker was Bill Clinton.

Also at the “Road Ahead” conference, OFA national chairman Jim Messina—asserting that OFA was was “building a national advisory board filled with people in this room”—told the invited donors: “We need you. This president needs you.” He cited the Common Purpose Project (CPP), a non-profit known for convening weekly meetings of left-wing nonprofit groups with White House officials, as “the model that we’re basing this off.” CPP founder Erik Smith is a Democratic operative, a former Obama campaign consultant, and a board member of both OFA and Business Forward.

OFA executive director Jon Carson, for his part, told the donors at the “Road Ahead” conference that “there’s going to be a place for each and every one of you.” Added Carson: “From the grassroots volunteers, to every one of you, we need you in this fight to reduce gun violence. In finally holding Republicans accountable for being climate deniers. In everything from tackling these budget issues to immigration, we are going to put this army to work.”[1]

The following day, a no-invitation-necessary gathering titled the “Obama Campaign Legacy Conference” was held at the Washington Hilton. There, Carson told reporters that OFA would “absolutely” be funded mostly by grassroots contributors rather than big corporate donors.

Among the left-wing groups that indicated an early willingness to work with OFA were Business Forward, the Center for American Progress, Media Matters, and the Democracy Alliance.

In February 2013, The New York Times reported that “at least half of [OFA’s] budget will come from a select group of donors who will each contribute or raise $500,000 or more.”

Also in February 2013, OFA initiated a Twitter hash-tag campaign, #WeDemandAVote, in an effort to influence the public as well as Congressional representatives to pass President Obama’s proposed gun-control measures. Before long, however, it became clear that most of the avatars of these “people” speaking out against “gun violence” were brand new “egg” avatars—i.e., the default avatars that Twitter gives to every new account—spamming the same two messages to Members of the House and Senate across the United States. These new avatars had been assigned to readers who had simply clicked a Tweet button on a website somewhere.

In March 2013, OFA held a “founders summit” at a hotel near the White House, where donors paying $50,000 apiece were given an opportunity to mingle with OFA leaders Jim Messina and Jon Carson. Meanwhile, donors giving or raising $500,000 or more were rewarded with seats on OFA’s national advisory board and the privilege of attending quarterly meetings with President Obama, as well as other White House meetings. Regarding this arrangement, MSNBC commentator Chuck Todd said:

“This just looks bad—it looks like the White House is selling access. It’s the definition of selling access. If you believe money has a strangle hold over the entire political system, this is ceding the moral high ground.”

Robert Edgar, the president of Common Cause, concurred: “It just smells. The president is setting a very bad model setting up this organization.”

On March 13, 2013, President Obama himself hosted an OFA fundraiser at the Adour restaurant in Washington’s St. Regis Hotel. The event was attended by approximately 70 wealthy donors, some of whom paid $50,000 apiece for admission. In the course of his remarks, Obama explained that contributions from these donors could someday serve to embolden politicians in certain districts to support the President’s agenda even if it is unpopular there:

“If you have a senator or a congressman in a swing district who is prepared to take a tough vote … on immigration reform, or legislation around background checks for guns, I want to make sure that they feel supported and that they know that there are constituencies of theirs who agree with them, even if they may be getting a lot of pushback in that district.”

A few days later, OFA emailed, to Obama supporters, black-and-white “digital signs” stating: “I am one of 92% of Americans who support universal background checks” for gun purchasers. The recipients of these emails were urged to use the signs as replacements for their Facebook profile pictures, and to display them in their windows or on their work desks.

In April 2013, OFA reported that during the first quarter of the year, it had raised $4.8 million from 109,582 individual supporters.


[1] During its first two months in existence, OFA not only held hundreds of events across the United States, but also began contacting supporters via email blasts focusing on President Obama’s top issues: curbing gun violence, fighting climate change, overhauling the immigration system, and promoting tax hikes on the wealthy.


June 1, 2013, 02:33

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