Obama redeploys his grass-roots network to push budget

Volunteers canvassed door to door over the weekend in the first big test of his ground support.

By , Staff writer

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    DOOR TO DOOR: Lois Kenkare and her husband, Diva, (extreme right) canvassed their neighbors to support President Obama’s budget in Guilford, Conn., Saturday.
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With the sun shining overhead and the crocuses poking through the grass, Diva and Lois Kenkare walked up Fair Street determined to bring President Obama’s budget battle home to their neighbors.

“Hopefully, we can make an impact,” said Ms. Kenkare, as she approached a house armed with a stack of pledges and the aim of helping Mr. Obama win the votes he needs to pass his record $3.6 trillion budget.

In what’s shaping up to be a different kind of permanent campaign than is usually waged by Washington’s political consultants, thousands of volunteers across the country took to the streets over the weekend at Obama’s behest. They knocked on doors, stood in front of stores to collect signatures, and urged their neighbors to call their congressman.

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With this canvassing operation, the Obama administration is taking traditional presidential strategies for building public support to a whole new level.

President Franklin Roosevelt had his fireside chats and Ronald Reagan urged his supporters to call their congressmen, but Obama is asking people to give up their time and engage their neighbors in policy battles usually waged within Washington’s Beltway.

“What the Obama team is trying to do is far beyond what any president has tried to do before. Take the enthusiasm and activism that helped him win the presidency to help him win his political agenda,” says Stephen Farnsworth, a professor of communication at George Mason University and the author of “Spinner-in-Chief: How Presidents Sell Their Policies and Themselves.”

“People tend to be very jealous of their time,” he notes. “What Obama is asking is not cost-less – it’s very different from ... nodding when FDR says something you like on the radio.”

The canvassing operation was put together by Organizing for America, the political organization that grew out of Obama’s grass-roots campaign and is now part of the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

A mixed response

The group claims that there were more than 1,200 canvassing groups out nationwide this weekend. But many places saw fewer volunteers than expected.

In Guilford, Conn., only five volunteers arrived at Cathy Cassar’s white clapboard house on Saturday morning. She had hoped for at least 10 or 15, but the smaller turnout didn’t diminish her enthusiasm as she explained the day’s goals.

“We want to get people to support the budget, and [we are] also hoping we can get a lot of signatures so we can show the House and Senate how much support we have,” she said.

“We also want to get people really excited about taking part in government again – this is just a first step to make the community and public part of the whole political process,” she added.

After receiving maps of their territory, the Kenkares and other canvassers took to the streets. Their door-to-door operation got mixed results. Lots of people weren’t home. Others such as John and Barbara Wells are staunch Republicans who didn’t want to sign a pledge, although they did voice support for Obama’s goals.

Up the street, Michael Sulzbach also didn’t want to sign the pledge – at least not yet. “I don’t know enough about the budget yet. I want to read more about it,” he said.

But the Kenkares had some successes. By the end of their two-hour walk through the neighborhood under a chilly, spring sun, they had collected eight pledges. Their whole group brought in a total of 30 pledges.

That number was on the low side for most of Connecticut’s canvassers. But that’s partly because it was a door-to-door operation, says Jennifer Just, the statewide volunteer liaison for Organizing for America. Volunteers who stood in front of supermarkets and other busy stores had better luck.

“Overall, we didn’t have as many volunteers as we had hoped, but the number of pledges per person was really quite extraordinary,” says Ms. Just. “We were hoping for 20 pledges per volunteer, [but] we’re doing more like 50 pledges per volunteer. That was unexpected.”

Nationally, the DNC says it “exceeded expectations” in several areas but it is still tallying the weekend’s results. A spokeswoman added that they have gotten “hundreds of thousands” of people to sign the pledge on the Web.

Will grass-roots pressure work?

This kind of grass-roots organizing could alienate some of the very lawmakers it aims to persuade, some political analysts suggest. But Professor Farnsworth thinks that’s a risk worth taking.

“The greatest peril for Obama is if Congress doesn’t do what he wants,” he says. “Obama does not want to be the next Jimmy Carter, who didn’t get very much of what he wanted from Congress even though there were Democratic majorities in the House and Senate.”

But Farnsworth also notes that Obama’s mobilizing strategy could be undermined by the makeup of the current Congress, where there are only a handful of persuadable lawmakers.

By contrast, when President Reagan urged his supporters to call their congressman to support his 1981 tax bill, there were many centrist Democrats representing conservative districts in the House who felt “cross-pressures,” he says.

Today, most of the persuadable lawmakers are in the Senate – such as Connecticut’s Independent Sen. Joseph Lieberman or moderate Republicans Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both of Maine.

“These are the people that perhaps will be the most persuadable. [A] strong performance by activists in those states will make a difference in terms of how they choose to vote,” says Farnsworth. “If you’re going to measure the success of this, you have to watch the Senate not the House.”

The Kenkares have already called Senator Lieberman and urged him to support Obama’s budget. They were not pleased with the response they got.

“He says he’s going to support the budget overall, but when it comes to taxes he’s going to raise questions,” says Lois Kenkare. “That will simply slow things up and we need to get this done.”

Her husband, Diva, complains that Lieberman, like most other members of the Senate, has had many years to put his stamp on the economy.

“These people have a lot to say now about how to run the country, but they’ve had their chance and they didn’t do a good job,” he says. “They have to at least give this young guy Obama a chance to implement his ideas.”

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