President Barack Obama is telling some of his most avid supporters that they can help activate people around his governing agenda much like they did for his re-election.
Obama was speaking Wednesday to the group Organizing for Action. It's assembled from his campaign to push for an immigration overhaul, legislation to control gun violence and a budget that blends deficit reduction with targeted spending.
The president says Washington can't be changed from the inside and tells supporters that people determine the framework for debate.
Obama spoke to the group on the same day he addressed House Republicans, many of whom suspect Obama simply aims to recapture Democratic control of the House in 2014.
Obama says he just wants to govern -- in his words, "At least for a couple years."
Leaders of Organizing for Action defended their fledgling nonprofit group at a "founders summit" attended by top donors and supporters, saying it was a volunteer-driven nonprofit that aimed to marshal support for popular issues pushed by Obama such as curbing gun violence, promoting immigration reform and addressing climate change.
"This is something that should be celebrated, not criticized," said David Plouffe, a former White House senior adviser and adviser to the group. Jim Messina, OFA's chairman and former Obama 2012 campaign manager, said the group was focused on issue advocacy, not electoral politics.
"I suppose we all could sit back and relax after the campaign and say we got him re-elected," Messina said. "But it's not 'yes he can,' it's 'yes we can.'"
Obama was headlining the two-day meeting of the new nonprofit group with the dinner speech on Wednesday night. The group was formed by former Obama aides and is raising millions of dollars in unlimited amounts from donors and small-dollar contributors to rally support for issues like gun control, immigration reform and climate change. Donors who attended the meetings at a Washington hotel near the White House were asked to contribute $50,000.
The group is not accepting donations from corporations, federal lobbyists and foreign donors and has said it will release, voluntarily, the identities of donors who give more $250 or more on a quarterly basis.
But watchdog groups say the group runs counter to the spirit of Obama's opposition to the influence of money in politics and have cautioned that donors could get special access to the White House in exchange for large contributions. In a letter to Obama released shortly before the meeting, campaign finance watchdog organizations questioned whether Obama may be violating a ban on soliciting gifts by the president and executive branch officials.
J. Gerald Hebert, executive director of the Campaign Legal Center, said Obama's involvement with OFA "not only raises policy concerns relating to the purchase of influence over the administration, but also may cross the line in terms of the federal law banning the soliciting of gifts by any member of the executive branch, including the president."
OFA officials said they were on sound legal ground, noting that Obama can appear before any nonprofit group that advocates for public policy issues. White House press secretary Jay Carney has said there is no price tag to see the president and has noted that administration officials routinely interact with outside advocacy groups.
OFA plans to ramp up its activities across the nation, with weekly events geared at driving support behind gun violence legislation prompted by a deadly Connecticut school shooting, efforts to reform immigration laws and tackle climate change. "Our role, quite simply, is to change the balance of power by being an organization, a network of grassroots strength, that is going to stand up for that agenda," said Jon Carson, OFA's executive director.
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