By JOSH LEDERMAN and KEN THOMAS, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Close aides and loyal allies who made President Barack Obama's re-election possible are attempting to do what's never been done before. They're building an extensive, well-heeled network of outside groups and consulting firms with one goal: promoting Obama's agenda and shaping the legacy he'll leave behind.
Two months into his second term, Obama faces strong headwinds from congressional Republicans and a divided nation as he works to enact an ambitious agenda.
So those who fought to keep him in office are launching a sweeping effort, independent of government, the Democratic Party and traditional liberal groups, to create a web of influence outside the White House gates that can rally support for Obama's policies, with more flexibility that being on the inside allows.
"You can only change it from the outside," Obama said of Washington in the heat of his re-election race, reflecting a frustration that characterized his first term and his ongoing challenge to convince Republicans to see things his way.
The election over, Obama's loyalists — from campaign strategists to online gurus and policy hands to press agents — are embracing that lesson as a call to action, slicing his agenda into smaller parts and launching highly targeted, campaign-style efforts on health care, job creation and electoral politics.
The linchpin of the effort is Organizing for Action, a nonprofit run by former Obama advisers that has essentially transformed his re-election campaign into a grassroots machine to support his initiatives. In its early stages, the group is raising millions from big and small donors alike and whipping up support for issues like gun control and an immigration overhaul.
Known by its initials, OFA is chaired by Jim Messina, a former White House aide who ran Obama's 2012 campaign, and several former Obama aides sit on its board. David Plouffe, who until February served as Obama's senior adviser, is expected to join the board soon.
OFA's close ties to the West Wing and its control over the former campaign's resources has raised questions about where the nonprofit group ends and the White House starts.
The group controls Obama's massive email list and also his campaign Twitter account, which has more than 27 million followers and frequently tweets links to his government website.
As a tax-exempt entity, OFA is subject to strict limits on electoral activity, and the group has said it won't get involved in elections. The group accepts unlimited donations from individuals and corporations but plans to release the names of its donors. The corporate funding is a shift: many of the same operatives involved with OFA were once loud critics, along with Obama, of big money- and corporate-fueled entities that emerged after a series of court rulings, especially the Citizens United case, loosened restrictions on money and politics.
The arrangement has also opened the White House to criticism that contributors, in exchange for supporting the groups, could receive special access to Obama that the public is denied. White House press secretary Jay Carney has fielded repeated questioning over whether bundlers who raised $500,000 or more for OFA were promised quarterly meetings with the president — a claim that OFA and the White House disputed.
"Any notion that there is a set price for a meeting with the president of the United States is just wrong," Carney said Monday. He said it's expected that Obama would meet groups promoting his agenda and that OFA's existence is "perfectly appropriate."
As advocacy groups, OFA and the smaller organizations can coordinate with the White House on messaging and tactics. Carney has said that administration officials may appear at OFA events but won't be raising money.
"They have created literally a cottage industry solely devoted to access and making money off the access," said Sean Spicer, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee.
An OFA "founders' summit" for donors on March 13 at a Washington hotel will include addresses by Messina, Plouffe and others, according to an invitation obtained by The Associated Press. The next day will include briefings on immigration, gun control and climate change, with former Environmental Protection Agency head Lisa Jackson expected to attend.