Thursday, July 9, 2009 | 2 a.m.
When then-Sen. Barack Obama was elected president last year, Democrats hoped that his grass-roots organizing drive would change everything.
The organization relied on high degrees of enthusiasm and technology to raise hundreds of millions of dollars in small increments and leaned on 2 million active volunteers to win the election handily.
Some liberals thought Obama’s machine would do more than deliver victory. They hoped it would change governing — mobilizing grass-roots activism to force big change on Washington, meaning universal health care and a move toward a carbon-free future.
Nevada Democrats were especially hopeful. In a state with little history of political or civic activism, Democrats registered voters and got them to the polls in record numbers. These new activists pledged to continue the momentum and shift power from special interests such as the gaming industry to average people.
The reality is much more complicated.
Take the current battle over health care reform, which is in a crucial stage on Capitol Hill.
Advocates of reform are wondering if and when Obama is going to mobilize his citizen army.
Writing in The Washington Post, columnist Harold Meyerson notes the Obama administration’s success in co-opting big corporate interests such as Wal-Mart for the drive to universal coverage.
Then he adds, “But if you measure the administration’s campaign by the degree of street heat on legislators to enact a universal plan, the results look far less rosy.”
Meyerson would like to see Obama activate his base and get it moving.
It’s not such an easy or necessarily prudent task, however.
Marc Ambinder, politics editor at The Atlantic, wrote a much-discussed piece last year about how Obama’s organization could conceivably change governing.
“There is a significant, a major difference between campaigning, which involves pursuit of a singular goal, and passing legislation, which is messy and involves competing interests,” Ambinder said Wednesday in an interview with the Las Vegas Sun.
“It’s proved difficult for them to adapt methods of the campaign to the much less satisfying business of government,” he said. “On the other hand, you can’t fault them for trying.” He noted that phone banking seemed to help win support, on the margins, in the fight over the recently passed cap-and-trade legislation.
Tom Schaller, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and close observer of Democratic politics, said one problem is that many people had lots of reasons to work for and vote for Obama last year, but they may have widely divergent views about, say, health care.
Strategic and tactical considerations also play roles.
The White House needs to keep moderate Democrats in the fold, especially on such sensitive issues as health care because they may need 60 votes in the Senate to overcome a Republican filibuster.
So, having tens of thousands of activists call the offices of moderate Democrats might do nothing but annoy those members.
On the other hand, lawmakers generally react to call volumes, especially if the calls or e-mails come from their home states.
Ambinder said the White House has been most focused on co-opting powerful opposition, such as big business, hospitals and doctors, which it hopes will clear the way for passage.
Still, Ambinder said, “When it’s time to vote for final passage on the floor, you may see … the sort of pressure that replicates the energy they were able to generate” last year.
Here in Nevada, the energy has dissipated, without question.
Not for everyone, however. Yvette Williams, a delegate to the Democratic National Convention and one of Obama’s most valuable foot soldiers here, is still working around the clock, volunteering and serving on committees.
She will be recruited hard to take the next step and run against Republican state Sen. Barbara Cegavske next year.
No thanks, Williams said.
Unless Obama calls personally, in which case she could never say no to him, she said with a laugh.