Obama's backers go to the Net for stimulus bill

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

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor
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
Mobilizing: Claire Matthews talked of ways to get support for the stimulus at a political house party Sunday in Chester, Conn.

Steve Wilmarth has a message for people in Washington.

“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.

Calling themselves “political compadres,” both say Obama’s election, and their role in it, helped change their sense of what it means to be a citizen in America. “We were homemakers in Ivoryton and we were starving for some moral leadership, some integrity in the highest office,” says Ms. Howard. “We were despondent, the public was despondent. Howard Dean laid the groundwork, opened the door for Obama.”

They say their work is just beginning. “When the battle cry is called, I will respond,” says Howard. “I know we’re trying to get the stimulus package passed, and I’ve talked it up to people.... But if it doesn’t pass, I’ll do more.”

That sentiment was universal in the colonial-era kitchen in rural Connecticut. Between the constant chatter and children running in and out, people said they were changed as a result of Obama’s election and felt they had their own role to play in the polity.

Howard and Matthiessen prefer going door-to-door when making their political pitch. But Henry Krempel, host of the event, says he prefers phone-banking. A computer programmer, he’d “never, ever, ever” been involved with politics until he heard Obama speak. He made 30,000 phone calls all over the US for Obama’s campaign and is ready to do it again.

“The phone call, at this time in our history, works. People are ... very segregated, they don’t see the middle of the road. The nuance is gone,” he says. “Somebody will say, ‘I heard this,’ and you can say, ‘That’s not quite true and you don’t have to listen to me, but here’s a reference ... you can look at.’ This kind of rich conversation is something that is very much missing in American politics today.”

Laurie Santos is using this evening to reconnect with people but also to pass around literature about local and state problems, including budget cuts proposed by Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell. “Some of her suggestions are anti-Obama, anti-stimulus,” says Ms. Santos, a retiree from Clinton, Conn.

Political analysts are watching all of this with interest. “This is a very powerful instrument Obama has at his disposal. It certainly worked during the campaign,” says John Zogby, president of Zogby International, a polling firm in Utica, N.Y. “It’s still early, but this could be momentous because no one’s been able to do it like this before.”

Others are more skeptical. Every president adapts the latest technology, and this movement just happens to be organized around the Internet, says Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution.

“Suddenly it’s become full court press [on the stimulus package], and so he’s using it. I don’t think there’s anything more to it than that.”

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