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Obama seeks peace between activists, centrists

President-elect Barack Obama, in trying to keep his transition to the White House smooth, is refereeing a struggle between liberal activists and party traditionalists.
Image: Barack Obama
Barack Obama introduces retired Gen. Eric Shinseki as his choice for Secretary of Veterans Affairs at a Chicago hotel on Monday.Ralf-Finn Hestoft / Pool via Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

President-elect Barack Obama is refereeing a struggle between liberal activists, who want to help their candidate score rapid wins in Washington, and party traditionalists who would turn his powerful grass-roots organization over to the Democratic National Committee.

Any mishandling by Obama and his aides could cost him support from factions that were crucial to his Nov. 4 victory and that remain important to his hopes of launching a smooth administration in January.

A top Obama aide sent a note this weekend to progressive activists, imploring them to cool down and let Obama govern. Other aides are helping Obama decide what to do with the campaign's massive mobilizing tools, which include millions of e-mail addresses of citizens with proven records of giving Obama money or other means of support.

Many of Obama's younger and more liberal supporters — sometimes collectively called "netroots" because the Internet is their chief communications tool — want to remain a political and social force that is not subsumed by the Democratic Party.

"This can't just be about Obama or the Obama movement," said Jonathan Singer, a blogger at the progressive MyDD. "It has to be greater than that."

Singer and others do not want the far-flung, electronically connected army to become nothing more than a DNC e-mail list.

Obama campaign manager David Plouffe sent an e-mail to supporters last week, asking them what should happen to Obama's enormous political operation. About a half-million answered, many suggesting they want the campaign's sense of an online community to continue after Inauguration Day.

‘Open dialogue’
Obama aides say no firm decision has been made, although many believe the operation — including the massive e-mail lists and detailed demographic information about supporters — eventually will be folded into the DNC, typically charged with running the incumbent president's re-election. Other options would be to create a political action committee or an advocacy group. Those would be more palatable to grass-roots leaders who believe they should keep some control of the organization.

"It is an open dialogue," Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt said. "No structural decisions have been made."

Some Obama supporters already are adapting campaign techniques to the post-campaign environment. More than 15,000 plan house parties this week as part of an early test of the president-elect's ability to mobilize voters after the election. Advisers say such activities might help Obama push legislation through a Congress that, although controlled by Democrats, may balk at some of the new administration's plans.

Of those who answered Plouffe's survey, 65 percent said helping Obama pass legislation should be the top priority.

For decades, politicians have sought ways to harness public sentiment to help them outflank troublesome opponents, news organizations and rival interest groups. Obama's vast network can be a powerful weapon if he can control it, or a dangerous and unpredictable force if he cannot.

President George W. Bush failed to enact major changes in Social Security and in immigration laws, even when fellow Republicans controlled Congress, because activists that included millions of Republicans flooded congressional phone lines and e-mails with complaints.

Striking a balance
Even some of Obama's staunchest supporters warn that they will not be taken for granted or told to take orders. Numerous liberal bloggers have complained that Obama's chief Cabinet picks, which include Hillary Rodham Clinton at the State Department and Bush's Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, at the Pentagon, are too centrist and traditional for a man who ran as the "change" candidate.

Obama's aides, meanwhile, are trying to make sure the network of activists doesn't turn rabid.

"He was elected to be the president of all the people, not just those on the left," Obama deputy campaign manager Steve Hildebrand wrote in a note posted on the Huffington Post Web site. "This is not a time for the left wing of our party to draw conclusions about the Cabinet and White House appointments that President-elect Obama is making."

Obama's advisers want desperately to keep those liberal activists excited and in the fold. His online supporters raised some $500 million for him, created 2 million online profiles at and used his database to make phone calls during the campaign's final days.

The campaign's senior aides recently brought more than 350 of Obama's former staffers and supporters to Chicago to discuss how to proceed. Many of them expect to stay with their jobs, making sure local volunteers remain engaged in a political process that has the potential to enact legislation, organize volunteer efforts after national disasters and, of course, raise political money and turn out votes.