CHICAGO — Walk into Organizing for Action’s new hipster downtown hardwood space here, and there’s no big picture of Barack Obama, just a deep blue wall with a giant “OFA” painted in white.
Look down the street from the front door, though, and Chicago’s Trump skyscraper looms directly in the line of sight, a perpetual reminder of the group’s new purpose.
Fresh off a huge win for anti-Trump forces in the Obamacare repeal fight, the Democratic activist group is gearing up for its next showdown this fall — battling President Donald Trump’s proposed budget cuts with the same state- and district-focused strategy it employed on health care. The organization inspired by Obama hasn’t heard from him in months, though a person close to the former president said he’s likely to lend his support later this year to OFA as well as the Democratic National Committee and the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. That could include fundraising and other help, but not a direct leadership role.
In the meantime, OFA isn’t sitting still. It’s already looking at plans to go into 2018 with a massive voter registration drive that could become its main project ahead of the midterms.
First, though, OFA will spend Congress’ August recess sending organizers to town halls and district offices. It has a calendar of “accountability” (read: protest) and “appreciation” (read: drop-ins like the one to deliver cupcakes to Sen. Joe Manchin’s West Virginia office last week) events, based on senators’ votes on repealing Obamacare. They’re showing up to cheer for John McCain, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, and yell at people like Jeff Flake and Dean Heller.
“Our members are home. And it’s time to go talk to them,” OFA executive director Katie Hogan said of lawmakers.
Every version of OFA when the initials didn’t stand for Obama for America (its presidential campaign inception) has struggled. When it was reconstituted after the 2012 campaign as a vehicle for promoting Obama’s second-term agenda, few people understood what its mission was or how it wanted to measure success. Some Democrats remain bitter that Obama favored OFA over the DNC as his main political arm, and others wonder how effective OFA can be as a nonprofit barred from engaging directly in campaigns.
Yet six months into a presidency geared toward undermining the legacy of the man these young operatives still revere — more as someone who shaped not just their politics but their entire political consciousness — OFA has found new life. It’s become the lead organizing hub of the Trump resistance.
OFA has organized thousands of people to attend events protesting the president’s policies, while also advising new progressive groups taking shape. Matt Traldi, a top organizer at Indivisible, met with OFA in January for a primer on what the group does and how. Others, like Swing Left, have come for crash courses. And since April, some 1,000 people in 29 states have participated in the group’s six-week fellowship program.
“If anything changed, it’s the interest level of people who were not previously active — not the type of people, but the numbers,” said Hogan. “Now there is a recognition of what we were always doing.”
Hogan said she’s been surprised how evenly the split of interested activists is between people who are under 18, 18 to 35, and over 35. The response has skewed toward women, and 30 percent to 40 percent of those who’ve signed up are nonwhite, she said.
Before the election, OFA had drafted plans for how to retool and scale back under a Hillary Clinton presidency. It didn’t start working on the Trump plan until the week after he won.
It started with a hiring spree, doubling its staff to 40 full-time employees in Chicago and two dozen spread across other states, supplemented by in-state contract hires in Maine, Arizona, Ohio and Alaska. The group has grown to 102 chapters, each required to host at least two events per month, plus run a fellowship program.
One full-time staffer is based in Washington to coordinate with other groups, whether on the network’s daily 9:45 a.m. call or meetings of the pro-Obamacare “Protect Your Care” alliance of progressive groups.
After the inauguration, OFA ruled out jumping into the battles over Trump’s Cabinet nominees.
“Being aware of what and how you’re organizing people is something that we in the progressive world haven’t always done well,” said Jen Warner, who came back to OFA as the national organizing director after a stint as Clinton’s deputy field director in Ohio. “You can’t mobilize for eight years. That will burn everyone out.”
Obamacare was the obvious battle to focus on, they decided. A few other Trump moves prompted responses, like his announced withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, but little more.
“You had people who had the courage to finally get up,” Warner said. “Nobody wants to be part of something where you’re just standing on a corner shouting at the wind.”
They have their stats: 1.1 million people who signed up to take some kind of action, which resulted in 2,500 events that OFA hosted or participated in; 40,000 people trained in person or by webinar; and 110,000 calls made to members of Congress and volunteers.
After controlling Obama’s Twitter account while he was in the White House, OFA returned it to him in January. OFA staff and Obama’s personal office staff have stayed in touch. But the flow of information has mostly been OFA keeping Obama’s staff up to speed on what it’s doing, and Obama’s staff warning against using quotes or images of the former president in ways that could violate nonprofit tax restrictions.
He has no official role, but “Obama’s deep belief in the power of ordinary people to come together to enact change has always been at OFA’s core,” Hogan said.
Obama spokesman Kevin Lewis said “it’s no surprise” that people who joined Obama on the campaigns and in the White House have kept at it at OFA.
“When the president credited those who mobilized and organized for protecting health care for millions of people, it wasn’t lost on him that OFA, among other grass-roots organizations, played a significant part in that effort by training local organizers and educating communities about what was at stake,” Lewis said.
Top OFA staff members assume that before long they’ll be back in the fight to stop Republicans from changing Obamacare. They expect that many in the office will empty out over the back half of next year, as people move to midterm campaigns, and go to presidential campaigns afterward.
There continues to be talk that parts of OFA’s organizer training might eventually be folded into the Obama Library Center, though Lewis said nothing is in the works so far.
Meanwhile, Democratic politicians have been asking OFA for help with events, eager for the support and some Obama sheen. Democratic Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, Dick Durbin, Tammy Duckworth, Tammy Baldwin and Brian Schatz have all sent emails on behalf of OFA, as have Reps. John Lewis, Joe Kennedy III and Ruben Gallego, and former Secretary of State John Kerry and failed Missouri Senate candidate Jason Kander. Some have asked to send them. Some have been asked.
What OFA doesn’t do for any of them, though, is reciprocate by sharing its famed and much-sought-after email list, compiled over the course of Obama’s two campaigns.
OFA is looking to slowly draw more people in. To get new people comfortable with being involved, it encourages local chapters not to talk overtly about politics at meetings. The group hosts screenings of movies about global warming, taking credit for some of how the conversation has changed outside of Washington. OFA is providing tools and guidance to local elected officials looking for help.
The group may make more noise about the Paris accord withdrawal, or immigration, but it’s trying to stay focused.
Most of the opposition groups that have sprouted up since Trump won are election-oriented and inexperienced in coordination. OFA believes it now has the tools and know-how to keep the fight going when others will fade or stumble.
“Mobilizing in the moment,” Warner said, “is different from organizing in the long term.”