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Economy

[Fading enthusiasm]

Yes, we can—but maybe later

So far, the grassroots efforts on behalf of Obama are a mixed bag

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Illustration by Jack Black

Two weekends ago Sue Brooks spent an hour canvassing her northwest Las Vegas neighborhood. She was pulling double duty, trying to drum up support for Las Vegas candidate Jennifer Taylor and for President Barack Obama’s huge new budget. In an hour she got 15 signatures.

“I think people are supportive, they’re just busy living their lives,” she says of the small number of signatures. As more opportunities arise, she thinks more people will participate. “Going out and canvassing is the last thing on people’s list.”

On the same Saturday in Washoe County, volunteer Barbara Green went to the Sparks Library and “in less than two hours I collected 120 signatures of people who were supportive of the president’s economic policy plan. It was incredible.”

She goes on, “There were some people who said, ‘You’re crazy; get your head out of your ass,’” but she also heard some sad stories about how this economy has impacted people. “It makes me feel like the people are behind the president.”

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Beyond the Weekly
Organizing for America

The massive grassroots machine Barack Obama’s campaign built in 2008 was thought to be the Republicans’ worst nightmare. Post-election, it would be a sort of National Guard of citizen activists, ready at a moment’s notice to mobilize coast-to-coast to help further the president’s agenda. Now, with Obama’s $3.6 trillion budget on the line, the foot soldiers of his campaign are being summoned to collect signatures.

The results have been decidedly mixed. Nationally, Organizing for America, the new Obama-backed grassroots organization, claims that it has pulled in 100,000 “pledges” of support. More than 10,000 volunteers participated nationwide. But in Nevada—which supposedly became a player on the national political scene with its successful early caucus last year—the number was a lethargic 400, with only a hundred or so coming from Las Vegas. Brooks and Green, in other words, were largely out there by themselves.

It’s hard not to see this effort statewide as a monumental failure, but “it’s difficult to characterize it as one or the other [success or failure] until the vote takes place,” says OFA press secretary Natalie Wyeth. “That’s how we’re defining it. … Were we encouraged by support we saw across the country? Absolutely.”

Wyeth says comparisons between canvassing during the campaign and now are apples and oranges, especially given the fact that the late-stage election campaign saw significant numbers of full-time paid staff members, while OFA is working almost entirely with volunteers. “We fully expect to have a full-time staff, at least one person in each state, sometime soon,” she says. “As we do get full-time paid staff on the ground, we’re going to see efforts like this become more organized and more regimented.”

Obama Announces Organizing for America - from YouTube.com

Signatures collected are supposed to make their way to Congress this week as it deliberates Obama’s budget. But will pressure—even a lot of it—work on fence-sitting Republicans or moderate Democrats? “A lot of it comes from the members themselves,” say UNLV political scientist Dave Damore. “How vulnerable do they feel? If this is just the Democratic base, I don’t have to worry about them anyway; come election, that’s a different set of calculations.”

According to spokesman Tory Mazzola, the majority of calls into Sen. John Ensign’s office have been from Republicans complaining about the budget’s massive scope. He says an Ensign phone town hall drew 3,000 Obama critics worried that “it taxes too much, spends too much and borrows too much.”

The Obama grassroots efforts may be likened to a championship team playing its first preseason game—one can expect rust. But even if Organizing for America can succeed in powering up Obama’s grassroots machine, it will have “to be used sparingly,” says Damore. “Otherwise people stop listening. ... If you bombard people every week, people are going to say, ‘Come on.’ You have to pick your fights.”

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