David W. Brown, a lawyer and former professor at Yale and the New School, is most recently the author of “The Real Change-Makers: Why Government Is Not the Problem Or the Solution.”
It is disappointing that Organizing for America (OFA) has done so little to retool its successful campaign operation into something more. Much has been said about how from the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, he mobilized more of a “movement” than a traditional political campaign. But a movement it has not proved to be — and one major reason has been the way Obama and his team have used his supporters since winning the presidency. Instead of encouraging Obama backers to get engaged in community initiatives, this remarkable network of citizens was essentially viewed as a lobbying arm to get top-down legislation moving inside the Beltway. OFA was not so much organizing for America as for the Obama administration. They are not the same. Sadly, top-down government in any political administration mobilizes citizens when their collective voice is needed, which is very different from the bottom-up history of everyday Americans originating community action to advance workers’ rights, civil rights and gender equality.
Early in 2009, when OFA asked those on its mailing list what it should be doing in their communities, I wrote back and emphasized that each group of community organizers should determine what needed fixing where they worked and lived and that the energy of the 2008 Obama campaign needed grass-roots nourishment by establishing initiatives that addressed local problems. Unfortunately, there is little evidence that OFA prioritized such bottom-up work. In fact, OFA reported in a follow-up e-mail to the group that the great majority of those on its mailing list agreed that “helping the President pass legislation through grass-roots efforts should be a top goal for OFA.” OFA did acknowledge, however, that more than 60 percent of those initial respondents said “local issues” should also be on OFA’s agenda. But going forward, local issues didn’t get much OFA attention.