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Obama's backers go to the Net for stimulus bill

At weekend house parties, his campaign supporters make a postelection foray into policy.

By Staff writer / February 9, 2009

A movement? Members of Barack Obama’s grass-roots campaign network reunited Sunday at a house party in Chester, Conn., to help drum up support of the stimulus bill.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor

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Chester, Conn.

Steve Wilmarth has a message for people in Washington.

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“If they think that now the election is over, it’s back to business as usual, [they’re] wrong,” he says. “We have the ability to organize.”

The observation came over the weekend at one of more than 3,500 house parties coordinated around the US by Organizing for America, a group that evolved from Barack Obama’s grass-roots campaign network. With the Obama administration’s economic stimulus package on the line this week, OFA put out the call. Mr. Wilmarth, a managing director of a nonprofit cultural exchange organization, responded, is just one of more than 30 volunteers who responded in Chester, Conn.

The Chester gathering was part social reunion, part political event. It’s part of the first test of whether Obama’s Internet-fired political movement can transform from a campaign juggernaut into a policy-oriented movement that helps to push his national legislative agenda and elect like-minded people at state and local levels.

“Nobody has had anything this remotely well-organized or a list this long of people who were not only campaign volunteers, but were told there would be some kind of continued involvement,” says Bruce Buchanan, a presidential historian at the University of Texas at Austin.

It’s not unusual for a new president to use the latest technology to try to further his agenda. Franklin Roosevelt used radio for his fireside chats. For John Kennedy, television helped him remake the Washington press conference.

But those media were both top-down tools used to get out a message. The Internet, on the other hand, is a bottom-up, social-networking phenomenon. Just as the inauguration of the country’s first African-American president was historic, Obama’s state-of-the art political machine, too, may become historic in its ability to reignite American democracy.

“From the beginning, Obama said this isn’t my election, this is your election. He really told people, ‘You need to get out there and participate,’ ” says Alexandra Matthiessen, a homemaker from Ivoryton, Conn.

Like many at the Chester party, Ms. Matthiessen had never been involved in politics. Her friend Suzanne Howard, another mother from Ivoryton also at the party, had been politically active when she was young, but become disillusioned. It was Howard Dean, who ran for president in 2004, who got them interested in politics again. The two met, in fact, ice skating at the local pond when they noticed each other’s Dean stickers.