WASHINGTON (AFP) — Three days before setting foot in the White House, Barack Obama flipped a switch and set in motion what may prove to be one of the boldest political moves of his presidency.
Rather than turning over his Web-powered campaign machine to the Democratic Party or disbanding it, Obama began retooling it as a grass roots activist group to work alongside the White House in promoting his legislative agenda.
In a YouTube video as well as an email to the 13 million supporters on his mailing list, the president-elect announced the transformation of "Obama for America" into a new organization, "Organizing for America."
"You've built the largest grass roots movement in history," Obama told his backers. "And the movement you've built is too important to stop growing now."
Both Democrats and Republicans have been forced to stand up and take notice of the political gambit, which analysts say has the potential to reap enormous rewards but is not without risk or controversy.
David Plouffe, Obama's campaign manager, has stressed that Organizing for America is not aimed at twisting the arms of members of Congress but meant to keep activists engaged on issues such as health care, energy and the economy.
"This has obviously never been undertaken before so it's going to be a little trial and error," he added.
Simon Rosenberg, president of NDN, a progressive think tank here, likened Organizing for America to former president Bill Clinton's attempt to build a grass roots pressure group on health care reform but agreed that "there really hasn't ever been anything like it before."
"Barack is not like any other candidate," he said. "He comes to Washington with more supporters and more modern tools than anyone in history. Barack is going to reinvent the presidency the way he reinvented the campaign."
Plouffe's assurances that Organizing for America will not engage in congressional arm-twisting do not have everyone convinced.
"Republicans are scared that he's going to turn this thing on in legislative battles, something like health care" said Soren Dayton, a former staffer on the campaign of Republican presidential candidate John McCain.
"They've got a 13-million-person list," Dayton said. "They can crash the Capitol Hill phone system anytime they want.
"Deploying it in 2010 is another scary thing for Republicans," he said of the mid-term congressional elections.
Erick Erickson, editor of popular right-of-center blog RedState.com, said Democrats who get in the way of Obama's agenda may actually be the ones with the most to fear.
"It looks like he's going to use this group to push his own party in his direction because it's not going to work (with Republicans)," Erickson said.
He said Organizing for America, which will work out of the offices of the Democratic National Committee, threatens to "blur" the "boundaries between the political and the presidential" and could "blow up in his face."
"There comes a downside if members of Congress feel like they are being bullied by the president through these means, at which point he may face a backlash within his own party," Erickson said.
He also wondered how much even the most hardcore Obama supporters have left to contribute after a grueling primary and presidential campaign. "They run the substantial risk of burning these people out over time," he said.
For Republican strategist Joshua Trevino, a co-founder of RedState.com, "Organizing for America is quite explicitly the continuation of the Obama campaign apparatus.
"Though cloaked in the rhetoric of volunteerism and community service, it is nothing more than an attempt to maintain, organize, and direct pressure groups as needed by the Democrats at the local levels," he said.
"From a tactical standpoint, this is smart politics," he said. "Whether it's good for America is another matter. Community volunteerism and service are not traditionally partisan activities in the United States."
Garrett Graff, who worked for Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean in 2004, said there is definitely a re-election campaign aspect to Organizing for America even if its "scale, scope and ambition" are "up in the air."
"When you go back and look at politics 50 years from now the 2008 race will be the dividing line between pre-Internet and post-Internet politics," said Graff, who teaches digital politics at Georgetown University.
"You can no longer just turn it off the day after the election the way that we are used to in presidential campaigns," he said.
"Obama's already built a fundraising machine that is unparalled," Graff added. "If he can double it by 2012 there's not going to be a single person in America who can catch him.
"Does anyone think there's a Republican out there who can raise a billion dollars to run against a sitting president of the United States?"
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