Organizing for Action, the so-called 'grassroots arm' of the Obama administration, was designed to harness the youthful and hopeful energy of its members, and bring the political energy generated during the previous presidential campaigns to help support the current White House agenda.
In the last week, however, the group itself has become a target for progressive activists who are fed up with the president's refusal to take a firm position against tar sands development in Canada and the growing threat of climate change.
Specifically, OFA has drawn ire for refusing to take a stance against the Keystone XL pipeline which remains under review by Obama's State Department. Even as its members reportedly want Obama to reject the project, OFA has followed the White House's lead by refusing to discuss the matter until the State Dept. review is complete.
“If you’re going to be a grass roots, you have to actually listen to the grass roots,” said Daniel Kessler, spokesman for 350.org, in an interview with Politico on Monday.
“I think they’re going to have to respond to calls to address these issues,” he added. “You cannot expect to have the passion of the people if you’re not satisfying what their demands are.”
Politico's reporting explores how groups like Bold Nebraska and CREDO Action have voiced regret that OFA refuses to engage in an issue that so many have clearly been galvanized by:
They’re pointing to talking points OFA has handed out to supporters and people who attend its events in which the group says that “if people believe that Keystone XL is the primary fight to be engaged in, there are many groups who have taken a position, and we are happy to make suggestions about who volunteers might work with on that or other issues.”
Jane Kleeb of Bold Nebraska said OFA can’t avoid Keystone forever.
“Since climate change is such a huge issue for the president’s base, they’re not going to be able to dance around that,” she said.
Kessler said OFA could use its millions of members — and connections to Obama — to drive the conversation around environmental issues toward action.
Specifically, Kessler said OFA could work to get the president to reject the pipeline, enact carbon regulations and help close coal plants. It should also push Obama to support a moratorium on fracking until government reviews on the practice are complete and work to develop a national energy policy that weans the U.S. off fossil fuels.
Last week, Buzzfeed obtained a "climate change fact sheet" put out by OFA to its regional leaders and members. In part, the circulated talking points come with a warning: “Volunteers from Credo Action or other organizations may attend your planning session and want to demand that we work on the Keystone XL pipeline."
As Buzzfeed noted, CREDO Mobile had called on its 3 million members to attend OFA planning sessions “to make sure stopping Keystone XL is part of the conversation.” In that story, Buzzfeed also interviewed 350.org's Kessler who said the memo talking points showed a “real anxiety within OFA — and maybe at the White House — that their supporters want a rejection and that in some way they need to be held in check.”
And the Huffington Post adds:
In early April, more than 1,000 activists protested [an Obama] fundraiser in San Francisco. February brought the largest environmental rally in U.S. history outside the White House. In a petition organized by CREDO, The Other 98% and Rainforest Action Network, more than 50,000 people pledged to commit civil disobedience if Keystone is approved -- with some vowing to get arrested in front of OFA offices.
Climate activists were initially heartened by OFA's decision to tackle their issue, which has remained in the background in Washington since Congress failed to pass cap-and-trade legislation in 2009. But the organization's failures to address Keystone, an issue that's been at the core of the environmental advocacy movement for years now, signals an identity crisis for OFA as it seeks to emphasize its grassroots credentials.
"OFA can't keep ignoring the pipeline in the room," said Jamie Henn, a spokesman for the climate advocacy group 350.org. "Environmentalists, young people, and progressives have made it very clear that Keystone XL is their top climate priority for the president, because it's a decision that he gets to make all by himself. OFA working on climate without advocating against Keystone XL would be like the president campaigning for LGBT rights without taking a position on gay marriage."
"If President Obama rejects the pipeline, I'm sure that thousands of environmentalists would be glad to volunteer for OFA and support much of the president's agenda," he added. "But those people aren't going to knock on a single door or make a single phone call if the president sells them out to Big Oil."
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