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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 / March 22, 2009

DOOR TO DOOR: Lois Kenkare and her husband, Diva, (extreme right) canvassed their neighbors to support President Obama’s budget in Guilford, Conn., Saturday.

Ann Hermes/Christian Science Monitor

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Guilford, Conn.

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.

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“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.

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.

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