President Barack Obama learned in his first term that he couldn't change Washington from the inside, saying in the heat of his re-election race: “You can only change it from the outside.” Months later, his former White House aides and campaign advisers are embracing Obama's words as a call to action.
Obama veterans are building a wide network of deep-pocketed groups and consulting firms independent of government, the Democratic Party and traditional liberal groups, a sweeping — if not unprecedented — effort outside the White House gates aimed at promoting the president's agenda and shaping his legacy.
From campaign strategists to online gurus and policy hands to press agents, Obama loyalists — including many who discovered that a second term yields fewer administration job vacancies — are slicing his agenda into smaller parts and launching highly targeted efforts on subjects including healthcare, job creation, and electoral politics.
The lynchpin of the effort is Organizing for Action, a nonprofit run by former Obama advisers that has essentially transformed his re-election campaign into a grass-roots machine to support his initiatives. In its early stages, the group is raising millions from big and small donors alike and whipping up support for issues like gun control and an immigration overhaul.
Known by its initials, OFA is chaired by Jim Messina, a former White House aide who ran Obama's 2012 campaign, and several former Obama aides sit on its board. David Plouffe, who until February served as Obama's senior adviser, is expected to join the board soon.
OFA's close ties to the West Wing and its control over the former campaign's resources has raised questions about where the nonprofit group ends and the White House begins. The group controls Obama's massive email list and also his campaign Twitter handle, which has more than 27 million followers and frequently tweets links to his government website.
As a tax-exempt entity, OFA by law can't intervene in elections and is subject to strict limits on lobbying. The group accepts unlimited donations from individuals and corporations but plans to release the names of its donors.
The corporate funding is a shift: Many of the same operatives involved with OFA were once loud critics, along with Obama, of big money- and corporate-fueled entities that emerged after a series of court rulings, especially the Citizens United case, loosened restrictions on money and politics.
The arrangement has also opened the White House to criticism that contributors, in exchange for supporting the groups, could receive special access to Obama that the public is denied. White House press secretary Jay Carney fielded repeated questions last week over whether bundlers who raised $500,000 or more for OFA were promised quarterly meetings with the president — a claim OFA disputed.
“They have created, literally, a cottage industry solely devoted to access and making money off the access,” said Sean Spicer, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee.
As advocacy groups, OFA and the smaller organizations can coordinate with the White House on messaging and tactics. Carney said the administration interacts with a variety of such groups, adding that administration officials may appear at OFA events but won't be raising money.
An OFA “founders' summit” for donors on March 13 at a Washington hotel will include addresses by Messina, Plouffe, and others, according to an invitation obtained by The Associated Press. The following day will include briefings on immigration, gun control and climate change, with former Environmental Protection Agency head Lisa Jackson expected to attend.
But when OFA asks supporters to cut a check, it will be competing with a growing list of pro-Obama factions making appeals to a limited pool of Democratic donors.
Business Forward, a 3-year-old trade group that has facilitated meetings between businesses and Obama officials, is ramping up operation as a liberal counterweight to the conservative-leaning U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Business Forward is funded by corporate money that was banished from Obama's campaign coffers in 2008 and 2012.
More than 50 corporate members pay $25,000 or $50,000 a year to be involved in briefings between Obama administration officials and business leaders, small businesses and entrepreneurs. Its members include AT&T and Microsoft, which donated to Obama's inaugural committee, and Citi, Comcast and Facebook, whose executives served on Obama's jobs council.
“The goal is to bring new people into the process and help them tell Washington how to create jobs and accelerate our economic recovery,” said Jim Doyle, Business Forward's president.
On healthcare, former White House official Anne Filipic recently took control of a nonprofit called Enroll America, which plans a massive push to get people to sign up for insurance under Obama's healthcare law, a key part of his legacy. The group is preparing for the opening of new insurance exchanges in October with on-the-ground organizing, online efforts and paid advertising.
Another team of Obama campaign aides, including field director Jeremy Bird and battleground state director Mitch Stewart, have formed a consulting firm called 270 Strategies that aims to bring grass-roots organizing to political and industry clients. One early project, dubbed Battleground Texas, has set a long-term goal to make GOP-heavy Texas competitive for Democrats.
Although there's no one group formally coordinating the efforts, outside organizations allied with Obama hold regular check-in meetings and conference calls. Representatives compare notes about strategy, priorities and budgets.
“Many of us have spent, at this point, six years or longer together,” said Teddy Goff, Obama's 2012 digital director, who is not affiliated with the fledgling bodies. “I have no doubt that people are talking to their old friends and making sure they're efficient as possible.”
And while the various groups supporting Obama's agenda operate independently, the overlap in tactics, messaging, and staff is tough to miss. For example, Blue State Digital, a firm founded by the campaign's digital strategist, Joe Rospars, is providing the same technology platform the campaign used in both OFA and Battleground Texas.
The blurring of the lines between outside groups, the campaign, and the White House has rubbed some the wrong way. Critics say it's a sign that Obama has reversed course since rebuking the role of money in politics during his first campaign and at the start of his presidency.
“Organizing for Action is unlike any entity we have ever seen before tied to a president,” said Fred Wertheimer, a campaign finance reform advocate with Democracy 21, a Washington nonprofit. “This group is so tied to Obama himself that it creates opportunities for corporations and individuals to buy corrupting influence with the administration — and, at a minimum, to create the appearance of such influence.”
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