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Barack Obama, Organizing for Action, and Executive-Centered Partisanship

  • Sidney M. Milkis (a1) and John Warren York (a1)


This article examines the historical significance of Barack Obama's creation of “OFA,” a presidential grassroots organization. It attempts, as Theda Skocpol has put it, to analyze American political development “as it happens.” Born as “Obama for America” during the 2008 campaign, OFA was renamed “Organizing for America” and ensconced in the Democratic National Committee during Obama's first term, where it served as the “grassroots arm” of the party. After 2012, it was spun off as a nonprofit social-welfare entity called “Organizing for Action” dedicated to advocating for Obama's second-term objectives: immigration reform, efforts to fight climate change, gun safety legislation, LGBT rights, and the implementation of health reform in the face of continuing intense opposition. That OFA was kept intact after Obama's successful election and reelection efforts marks it as an especially pioneering effort. Making use of several personal interviews, a wealth of primary documents, and data on spending and mobilization tactics, we explain how Obama's paradigm-shifting organization marked an effort to meet the challenges of forging a new progressive coalition in a fractious polity. More broadly, the article considers how this digital age grassroots effort has been influenced by, and in turn has contributed to the advance of an executive-centered partisanship characterized by high expectations for presidential leadership in a context of widespread dissatisfaction with government, strong and intensifying political polarization, and high-stakes battles over the basic direction of domestic and foreign policy programs.


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1. Tim Kaine (chairman, Democratic National Committee), interview with author, August 9, 2010.

2. Organizing for Action, accessed June 2014,

3. In the year and a half after Organizing for Action was established, it was the subject of 54 stories in the Washington Post, 10 New York Times articles, and 11 features on NPR.

4. Issenberg, Sasha, The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns (New York: Random House, 2012).

5. Skocpol, Theda, “Analyzing American Political Development as it Happens,” in Oxford Handbook of American Political Development, ed. Valelly, Richard, Mettler, Suzanne, and Lieberman, Robert (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 4868 .

6. Bawn, Kathleen, Cohen, Marty, Karol, David, Masket, Seth, Noel, Hans, and Zaller, John, “A Theory of Political Parties: Groups, Policy Demands and Nominations in American Politics,” Perspectives on Politics 10 (2012): 571–97.

7. Paul Pierson provides an especially provocative view of this position. Invoking the UCLA school, he writes, “[the] two most prominent domestic initiatives of our most recent presidents—the Bush tax cuts and Obamacare—are typical. These initiatives emerged, completely unsurprisingly, from each president's partisan coalitions. Substitute a different leader from the same party at the same time and arguably the policy agenda would look similar.” Pierson, “Conclusion: Madison Upside Down: The Policy Roots of Our Polarized Politics,” in The Politics of Major Policy Reform in Postwar America, ed. Jenkins, Jeffery A. and Milkis, Sidney M. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 282301, 292.

8. Galvin, Daniel, “Presidents as Agents of Change,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 44, no. 1 (March, 2014): 95–119, 112–16; Krimmel, Katherine, Special Interest Partisanship: The Transformation of American Political Parties (unpublished PhD diss., Columbia University, Department of Political Science).

9. Miroff, Bruce, “Presidential Leverage over Social Movements: The Johnson White House and Civil Rights,” Journal of Politics 43 (1981): 123, 14.

10. Mayhew, David R., Placing Parties in American Politics: Organization, Electoral Settings, and Government Activity in the Twentieth Century (Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1986). Azari, Julia, Delivering the People's Message: The Changing Politics of the Presidential Mandate (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014).

11. On the origins and development of executive-centered partisanship, see Milkis, Sidney M., Rhodes, Jesse, and Charnock, Emily, “What Happened to Post-Partisanship? Barack Obama and the New American Party System,” Perspectives on Politics 1 (2012): 5776 .

12. In the course of our research, we carried out twenty-five interviews, lasting between an hour and an hour and a half, with OFA staff and volunteers, as well as White House officials, members of Congress, and leaders of other advocacy groups who had close relationships with the president's grassroots organization. The interviews, conducted in person or by phone, were not recorded. We took notes during the interviews, and our participants were given the right to edit the notes according to their recollections of the conversation. Participants were also given the choice to remain anonymous. We have been very careful to use our interviews in appropriate ways to ensure that conclusions drawn from these discussions are valid. Specifically, we have used these data to draw conclusions about our interviewees' perceptions about the relationship between the Obama administration and OFA. Throughout, we have avoided equating interviewees' statements with objective factual information about the Obama presidency or OFA. Rather, interview information has been used to shed light on how individuals in the White House and OFA understood the objectives of grassroots organizing and why they took the actions they did. Whenever possible, we have corroborated the information gleaned from interviews with other sources.

13. No one should be surprised that OFA personally has changed considerably over these three phases. At the same time, some key staff people and effective volunteers have stayed the course, so that OFA has evolved over Obama's presidency; it has not had to be reinvented.

14. Trish, Barbara, “Organizing for America,” in The State of Parties: The Changing Role of Contemporary Parties, 6th ed., ed. Green, John C. and Coffey, Daniel J. (Lanham, MD: Roman and Littlefield, 2011), 163–84.

15. Molly Ball, “Obama's Edge: The Ground Game That Could Put Him over the Top,” The Atlantic, October 24, 2012,

16. OFA official, not for attribution, interview with Sidney M. Milkis, December 3, 2012.

17. Craig Timberg and Amy Gardner, “Democrats Push to Redeploy Obama's Voter Database,” Washington Post, November 20, 2012,

18. Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President at Organizing for Action Event,” Office of the Press Secretary, Washington, DC, March 13, 2013.

19. Ari Melber, “Year One of Organizing for America: The Permanent Field Campaign in a Digital Age: A Tech President Special Report, 2010,” accessed May 2014,

20. Organizing for America staff member, not for attribution, interview with Sidney M. Milkis, August 4, 2010.

21. OFA official, not for attribution, interview with Sidney M. Milkis, August 4, 2010.

22. Interview with OFA official, not for attribution, interview with Sidney M. Milkis, December 3, 2012.

23. Glenn Thrush, Reid J. Epstein, and Byron Tau, “Obama Unveils ‘Organizing for Action,” Politico, January 17, 2013,

24. Nancy Scola, “How Organizing for Action Plans to Keep Organizing for Action's Foot Soldiers Enlisted,” The Atlantic, January, 2014,

25. Owens  interview with Milkis and York, May 5, 2014.

26. Jon Carson, “The Undeniable Success of Action August,” letter to OFA supporters, August 2013.

27. Ball, “Obama's Edge.”

28. Ceaser, James W., Presidential Selection: Theory and Development (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1979); James, Scott, Presidents, Parties, and the State: A Party System Perspective on Democratic Regulatory Choice, 1884–1936 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

29. Milkis, Sidney M., The President and the Parties: The American Party System Since the New Deal (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

30. Galvin, Daniel J., Presidential Party Building: Dwight D. Eisenhower to George W. Bush (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009).

31. Bill Clinton, “Remarks and a Question-and-Answer Session at a Democratic National Committee Reception in Aspen,” Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, Federal Register Division, National Archives and Records Service, July, 25, 1998.

32. Galvin, Presidential Party Building.

33. Galvin, “Presidents as Agents of Change,” 112.

34. Jon Carson (former executive director, Organizing for Action), interview with author, December 14, 2015.

35. Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, No. 08-205, 558 U.S. 310 (2010).

36. Joseph Cameron, “Rebranded Obama Campaign Group Causes Frustration for DNC,” The Hill, January 23, 2013,

37. Anna Palmer and Tarini Parti, “Dems Complain OFA Is MIA,” Politico, February 26, 2014,

38. Reid Epstein, “Organizing for Action Pitches Help for Democrats,” Politico, August 6, 2013,

39. Phillip Bump, “How Much Longer Will Organizing for Action Survive?” Washington Post, May 20, 2014,

40. Kenneth P. Vogel, “A-List: The Best Email Lists in Politics,” Politico, May 24, 2009.

41. Interview with OFA official, not for attribution, November 10, 2015.

42. Susan Ross (volunteer and field organizer, Organizing for America; chapter leader and Spring Fellows Trainer for Organizing for Action), interview with Sidney M. Milkis and John W. York, July 9, 2014.

43. La Raja, Ray J., Small Change: Money, Political Parties, and Campaign Finance Reform (Ann Arbor MI: University of Michigan Press, 2008).

44. Bai, Matt, The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers, and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics (New York: Penguin Press, 2007).

45. Ibid.; Lakoff, George, Don't Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate (White Rive Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2008); Frank, Thomas, What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (New York: Henry Holt, 2007).

46. Jonathan Chait, “When Did Liberals Become So Unreasonable?” New York Magazine. November 20, 2011,

48. Milkis, Sidney M., Tichenor, Daniel, and Blessing, Laura, “Rallying Force: The Modern Presidency, Social Movements, and the Transformation of American Politics,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 43, no. 3 (2013): 641–70.

49. Schlozman, Daniel, When Movements Anchor Parties: Electoral Alignments and American History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015). Unlike Schlozman, who sees labor as the anchor group of the Democratic coalition through our own political time, we consider the civil rights movement as the core of progressive partisanship since the 1960s. See, for example, Lichtenstein, Nelson, “Pluralism, Post-War Intellectuals, and the Decline of the Union Idea,” in The Great Society and the High Tide of Liberalism, ed. Milkis, Sidney M. and Mileur, Jerome M. (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2005), 83114 .

50. Galvin, “Presidents as Agents of Change”; Krimmel, Special Interest Partisanship.

51. For example, the Reagan White House enlisted the support of the Moral Majority, which through pioneering use of direct mail and the radio reached millions of Americans and had a budget that exceeded the Republican National Committee's, to support Reagan's anti-Communist foreign policy initiatives. Milkis et al., “Rallying Force.”

52. Wilson, James Q., The Amateur Democrat: Club Politics in Three Cities (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1962).

53. Fiorina, Morris P. and Abrams, Samuel J., Disconnect: The Breakdown of Representation in American Politics (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012).

54. Galvin, “Presidents as Agents of Change,” 44; Jo Freeman, “The Political Culture of the Democratic and Republican Parties,” Political Science Quarterly (1986): 327–56.

55. Skocpol, Theda, “Advocates without Members: The Recent Transformation of American Civil Life” in Civic Engagement in American Democracy, ed. Skocpol, Theda and Fiorina, Morris P. (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1999).

56. Neeta Datt (chair, OFA Montgomery County, MD), interview with Sidney M. Milkis and John W. York, May 4, 2014.

57. Kevin Bogardus, “Obama Group Organizing for Action Courts Unions as Cash Grab Accelerates,” The Hill, March 19, 2013,

58. Bawn et al., “A Theory of Political Parties.”

59. A number of OFA field organizers had sent a letter to Obama after the 2012 election, urging their “awe-inspiring” leader to reject the Keystone Pipeline; but OFA doused this bottom-up appeal, disseminating “talking points” that instructed its staff and grassroots volunteers to support the president's agenda, which did not yet include opposition to the pipeline. Talia Buford, “Greens: OFA Dodging Keystone,” Politico, May 20, 2013,

60. Jon Carson interview.

61. OFA email to OFA membership list, October 14, 2015.

62. David Weigel, “Sanders Loses in Trade at Democratic Platform Meeting, Washington Post, July 9, 2016,”

63. Jon Carson, interview with author, December 14, 2015.

64. Sidney M. Milkis and John Warren York, “Managing Alone: Barack Obama, Organizing for Action, and Policy Advocacy in the Digital Era” (presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Washington, DC, August 28–31, 2014).

65. OFA's “Organizing Tee” does list “economic opportunity” as one of its causes; and its website makes clear that this commitment that includes raising the minimum wage. But OFA's email blasts and paraphernalia clearly give priority issues such as health care reform, gun control; minority, gender, immigration, and LGBT rights; and climate change.

66. Jon Carson (director of OFA), interview with Sidney M. Milkis and John W. York, December 14, 2015.

67. Owens, interview with Milkis and York, May 5, 2014.

68. After the 2014 election, OFA laid off a large number of staff and transitioned to a more volunteer-based leadership model. As one leading official told us, “We needed to give our new volunteer state leads tools to learn from each other. So, we established OFA Connect. It is basically an organizing tool that allows volunteers to share event information or send messages to one another about lessons learned. Across the country, organizers are advocating for the same sorts of issues, doing the same sorts of work, and confronting the same sorts of challenges. It makes sense that they should be communicating with each other, because it is pretty likely that an organizer in Iowa may be running into the same sort of problems as an organizer in Alabama, or Idaho, or wherever. That organizer in Iowa should not have to reinvent the wheel; they should be able to take advantage of the expertise of and lessons learned by the entire OFA family” (interview with OFA official, Sidney M. Milkis and John W. York, not for attribution, November 10, 2015).

69. Milkis et al. , “Rallying Force”; Harris, Richard A. and Milkis, Sidney M., The Politics of Regulatory Change: A Tale of Two Agencies, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).

70. Lowande, Kenneth S. and Milkis, Sidney M., “We Can't Wait: Barack Obama, Partisan Polarization, and the Administrative Presidency,” The Forum 12 (2014): 327 .

71. Organizing for Action Tumblr, accessed May 2014,

72. Interview with OFA Official, November 10, 2105; Laura Barron-Lopez, “Organizing for Action Seeks Comments on EPA Carbon Rules,” The Hill, November 31, 2013,

73. Coined by Richard Nathan, this term refers to the growing practice of modern presidents to strengthen their capacity to achieve political and policy objectives by wielding administrative powers through the bureaucracy rather than navigating a complex system of separated powers. See Nathan, Richard, The Administrative Presidency (New York: Wiley, 1983).

74. Carpenter, Daniel P., The Forging of Bureaucratic Autonomy: Reputations, Networks, and Policy Innovation in Executive Agencies, 1862–1928 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001).

75. Heclo, Hugh, A Government of Strangers (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1977).

76. Milkis, Sidney M. and Rhodes, Jessie, “George W. Bush, the Republican Party, and the ‘New’ American Party System,” Perspectives on Politics 5 (2007): 461–88.

77. Tom Cohen, “Rough Obamacare Rollout: 4 Reasons Why,” CNN, October 23, 2013,; Ross Douthat, “Obamacare, Failing Ahead of Schedule,” New York Times, October 19, 2013,; Josh Kraushaar, “Why Obamacare Is on Life Support,” The Atlantic, November 18, 2013,

78. Sarah Dutton, Jennifer De Pinto, Anthony Salvanto, and Fred Backus, “Poll: Obamacare Support, Obama Approval Sink to New Lows,” CBS News, November 20, 2013. Accessed January 10, 2017,

79. Ibid.

80. Elise Viebeck, “O-Care Premiums to Skyrocket,” The Hill, March 19, 2014,

81. Barbara Trish, “Organizing for Action” (delivered at the State of the Parties Conference, Bliss Institute, November 7 and 8, 2013); William Launder, “Journal Remains Biggest US Paper,” Wall Street Journal, May 1, 2012,

82. Personal interviews with Organizing for Action volunteers, Spring and Summer, 2014. The OFA analog of the snowflake, which comes in all sizes, shapes, and complex designs, is the neighborhood network of volunteers who share responsibilities—data, phone banks, volunteer recruitment, and canvassing—in pursuing common objectives.

83. Organizing for Action, accessed August 2013,

84. “Public Approval of Health Care Law,” Real Clear Politics Poll, accessed January 10, 2017,

85. Scott Clement and Peyton M. Craighill, “Democrat's Support for Obamacare Surges,” Washington Post, March 31, 2014,

86. Earnest Le (state healthcare coordinator, OFA), interview with Sidney M. Milkis and John W. York, May 4, 2014.

87. Jason Millman, “White House: 11.4 Million and Counting Signed Up for Obamacare in 2015,” Washington Post, February 17, 2015,

88. Milkis, Sidney M., “The Modern Presidency, Social Movements, and the Administrative State: Lyndon Johnson and the Civil Rights Movement,” in Race and American Political Development, ed. Lowndes, Joseph, Novkov, Julie, and Warren, Dorian T. (New York: Routledge, 2008).

89. Hugh Heclo, “The Once and Future Chief Executive: Prophecy versus Prediction” (remarks delivered at the 4th Annual Symposium in Honor of Ronald Reagan, “The Future of the American Presidency,” Regent University, Virginia Beach, Virginia, February 6, 2009).

90. Joe Szakos (president, Virginia Organizing), interview with Sidney M. Milkis and John W. York. July 21, 2014.

91. Earnest Le (state healthcare coordinator, OFA), interview with Sidney M. Milkis and John W. York, May 4, 2014.

92. Phillip Rucker and Robert Costa, “Battle for the Senate: How the GOP Did It,” Washington Post, November 5, 2014, The Republicans picked up nine seats in the Senate and thirteen in the House. The GOP majority in the Senate became 54–46; its 247–188 edge in the House gave the Republicans the largest majority it has enjoyed since 1948.

93. Between 2008 and 2015, Democrats have lost 13 Senate seats, 69 House seats, 913 state legislative seats, 11 governorships, and 32 state legislative chambers. The only president in the past seventy-five years who came close was Dwight Eisenhower, who witnessed a similar decline for the GOP during his presidency. Juliet Eilperin, “Obama, Who Once Stood As Party Outsider, Now Works to Strengthen Democrats,” Washington Post, April 25, 2016,

94. Ibid.; Nevertheless, although Obama and OFA gradually developed stronger ties with the party organization—indeed, since 2013, the president has devoted considerable time to fundraising for the DNC and both congressional committees—he and his political strategists remained skeptical how fruitful these efforts will be. David Plouffe, the principal architect of Obama for America, admitted, “I think we all agree something has to be done. The question is how. It's not going to be the DNC.”

95. Immigrants would be eligible to apply for three years of relief from deportation and for work permits, if they arrived in the United States before 2010 and arrived in the United States under the age of 16; or arrived in the United States before 2010 and have at least one child who is a U.S. citizen or legal resident.

96. El-Amine, a highly respected grassroots organizer, promised to revitalize OFA's volunteer ranks. To strengthen its community advocacy of immigration reform, OFA launched a bilingual fellowship program as part of its summer initiatives to train volunteers for grassroots organization. Sam Stein, “Obama Ally Organizing for Action Has Major Leadership Change,” Huffington Post, October 28, 2014,

97. Adam Litak and Michael D. Shear, “Supreme Court Tie Blocks Obama Immigration Plan, New York Times, June 23, 1916,”

98. Interview with OFA official, November 10, 2015. Obama did, in fact, keep OFA intact after he left the presidency. As we were doing the final editing on this article, the Democrats were engaged in a “painful rift” over Obama's political legacy and whether OFA should continue to play a key role  in policy advocacy, recruiting candidates, and training activists. Gabriel Debenedetti, “Obama's Party-Building Legacy Splits Democrats,” Politico, February 9, 2017,

99. Kimberley A. Strassel, “Leapfrogging the Democrats' Tech Advantage,” Wall Street Journal, September 21, 2014; Jon Ward, “The Behind the Scenes Story of the RNC's Quest for Data Supremacy,” Huffington Post, April 18, 2014.

100. Matea Gold, “Americans for Prosperity Plows Millions into Building Conservative Ground Force,” Washington Post, October 6, 2014,

101. Ibid.

102. Nick Fouriezos, “On the Trail: How Deep Does Hillary's Support Go,” Ozy, October 13, 2016,

103. Although Trump did not form a multilevel grassroots organization like OFA during the campaign, and his objectives were entirely antithetical to Obama's, like his predecessor, he kept his distance from the regular party organization and viewed himself and his followers as a movement. More to the point, during the early days of his presidency, the Trump administration formed a 501(c)(4) presidential advocacy group, dubbed the Great America Alliance, co-chaired by two of the new president's most important supporters: Rudy Giuliani and Newt Gingrich. At this writing, it remains to be seen if the Great America Alliance will build support at the community level—but the very fact that Trump and his allies created such an organization testifies to the important role that OFA played in the Obama administration. “Newt Gingrich Joins Great America Alliance as Co-Chair to Advance President Trump's National Agenda,” PR Newswire, January 30, 2017,

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Barack Obama, Organizing for Action, and Executive-Centered Partisanship

  • Sidney M. Milkis (a1) and John Warren York (a1)


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