Stimulus: Obama house parties can’t stimulate needed support

More than 3,300 homes across the nation were supposed to host house meetings at President Obama’s behest this weekend to spread the word and drum up support for his economic recovery plan.

But as effective as it was getting out the vote in the presidential campaign, the network’s first big test at driving public policy was producing mixed results.

By Marcus Garner
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Some political watchers say the election enthusiasm — the fund-raising and the volunteerism — may be waning.

“I think people are kind of tapped out,” said Emory University political science Professor Alan Abramowitz.

More than 4,500 Obama house parties were planned in December, including more than 100 inside a 30-mile radius of Atlanta. This weekend, by way of comparison, only 38 get-togethers were planned in the metro area.

The president’s new grassroots political arm, Organizing for America — formerly the much-ballyhooed social network of election volunteers some 13 million e-mail addresses strong — hosted house parties to explain and build enthusiasm for Obama’s multibillion-dollar American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

“I need your help to spread the word and build support,” Obama said in an e-mail message sent out Feb. 2.

But it was unclear exactly what people were supposed to do, other than watch a streaming video from Organizing for America, and then talk about it.

Most notably, no one — from Organizing for America’s Executive Director Mitch Stewart, to Obama’s political adviser David Plouffe — directed volunteers to reach out to their legislators.

“I’m really surprised that they haven’t used this tool,” said Georgia State University political science Associate Professor Bob Howard. “It’s sort of a sleeping giant.”

Phillip Garley of Lawrenceville, who hosted one of the house parties, said, “We’re not necessarily saying, you guys have to go call your congressmen.”

In any case, party attendee Margaret Johnson feared the action may have come too late to help. “We should’ve been doing these meetings a couple of weeks ago,” said the Brookhaven resident.

Six guests showed up for Garley’s party — half the turnout he expected. Another area event was cancelled abruptly when the host’s daughter came down with pneumonia.

But another host, Herschel Beazley, insisted that momentum grew over the weekend — possibly as Obama backers became alarmed at reports from around the country of less-than-spectacular turnouts. Beazley’s Sunday gathering in a Northlake hotel conference room drew 18 people.

“The cable chatter may have spurred more activity,” Beazley said. “My group RSVPs didn’t fill up until an hour before we met.”

At Beazley’s and other get-togethers, participants took it upon themselves to urge each other to contact Georgia’s top politicians.

“What we can do … No. 1, is hound [Sen. Saxby] Chambliss, [Sen. Johnny] Isakson and Gov. Sonny Perdue,” Victoria Deneroff said at her house meeting Saturday in Decatur.

One guest, Graham Green, told Deneroff’s gathering that the president can get a lot done if he “gets the 13 million people on his mailing list energized.”

That’s a big “if,” some political watchers say.

The strength of Obama’s massive e-mail network is limited by the Democrats’ slim lead in the Senate.

“I don’t think it will have much impact on the Republicans,” Abramowitz said, “because people who are doing this are going to be seen as the Democratic base.”

As for red states like Georgia, persuading the GOP majority won’t be easy.

“It’s hard to think that any Georgia Republican would be influenced by lobbying from any Obama supporter,” said Merle Black, another Emory professor and political watcher.

Republican congressmen summarily opposed the financial recovery bill that passed the House last week. Indeed, party leaders report hearing from another kind of groundswell — of people opposed to the bill.

Georgia Republican Party Chairwoman Sue Everhart said the online buzz has been flying from her side without any formal organizing on her part. “I received e-mails from people saying they’re asking their congressmen and senators not to vote for these bills, and they’re asking me to do the same,” she said.

During the Reagan era, the GOP had the market cornered on grassroots organizing, Georgia State’s Howard said.

“In the same way that Obama sort of revolutionized campaigns to rally voters and collect campaign funds, the Republicans used mass mailings to outorganize the Democrats during the ’80s,” he said.

Obama’s campaign used technology to outfox the Republicans during the election, and it should be able to continue to do so, Howard said.

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