ATLANTA (Reuters) - Thousands of groups of ardent fans of U.S. President Barack Obama met across the country during the weekend in hopes of converting the grassroots energy that fueled his election campaign into a durable movement.
The meetings were the first test of Organizing for America, a body that wants the army of 13 million people who signed up for Obama’s record-shattering campaign to be harnessed to his presidential agenda.
But even supporters say they fear it could be difficult to sustain the campaign’s momentum.
A survey of nearly a dozen meetings out of thousands that occurred from Alaska to Florida showed mixed results.
In Northampton, Massachusetts, 100 people — double the number expected — crowded into a church to discuss a massive stimulus package before Congress that is the centerpiece of Obama’s efforts to buck the U.S. economy out of recession.
“The sense today (Saturday) was that this really is a movement,” said local organizer Lisa Baskin, 65.
At one meeting in Miami, eight strangers met in a home and traded ideas about the stimulus for five hours, leaving organizer Toya LaRenn enthused by the possibilities of continued activism on Obama’s behalf. In a suburb of Fort Worth, Texas, a few mainly Nigerian immigrants gathered in a small apartment.
In Alaska, 12 people at a house agreed on Sunday to put pressure on their Republican senator to vote for the stimulus.
“It was incredibly productive,” said Brian Saylor, who organized the meeting in Anchorage with his wife Pam.
At Susan Ridenour’s home in Chandler, Arizona, 10 people agreed on the importance of passing the stimulus bill over Republican objections.
But nobody showed up to a hair salon in Atlanta where a meeting had been scheduled, leaving organizer Tony Morgan pondering whether complacency among Obama’s supporters would set in now that he was in the White House.
“Once we elect a president (many people) ... step back and say: ‘We have done our job,’” Morgan said.
Organizing for America grew out of Obama for America, a group that took U.S. politics by storm by its use of social networking websites, text messaging and the Internet to build and motivate vast numbers of voters and raise money.
Prior to the group’s existence, few in U.S. politics recognized the power of new technology as an electoral tool.
In past elections, Republicans gained advantage over Democrats by deploying lists of voters to mobilize supporters but their strategists say they were astonished by Obama’s pioneering campaign.
Obama frequently spoke directly with supporters using text messages sent simultaneously to millions.
Even so, sustaining that movement could be hard.
“It’s one thing to get 13 million people to agree to organize themselves to get one person elected on one day but it’s another thing to get that many people to agree on healthcare or the economic stimulus package,” said Andrew Rasiej of the www.personaldemocracy.com website.
Another problem is that as president Obama no longer enthuses his supporters with daily rallies as he did on the campaign trail, Rasiej and Morgan said.
Whatever obstacles the new group faces, it is being closely watched by Republicans, who need to build their own e-army and learn to communicate with if they are to compete at the next presidential election in 2012, said David All of the www.techrepublican.com website.
“Republicans haven’t been using an e-mail list to communicate. They’ve been using it as a means of extracting money,” All said.
And All said that besides promoting Obama’s White House agenda, Organizing for America has an unstated purpose: to oil the wheels for his re-election campaign.
Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor in Phoenix and Ed Stoddard in Dallas; Editing by Bill Trott and Mohammad Zargham