WASHINGTON – Reuniting with supporters and top-tier donors who fueled his re-election victory, President Barack Obama on Wednesday told a grass-roots group springing out of his campaign that they can play an equally powerful role in helping his ambitious second-term agenda come to fruition.
Addressing the fledgling group Organizing for Action for the first time, Obama sought to temper concerns among Republicans and good-governance groups that questioned whether the group was really seeking to help Democrats recapture the House in 2014.
"I actually just want to govern -- at least for a couple of years," Obama said.
Obama, who hours earlier held a rare meeting with House Republicans aimed at laying the groundwork for compromise, said he senses a genuine desire among Republicans to get things done. Many of those in the opposing party are just as weary of grinding gridlock that has stymied progress on major fiscal issues, he said.
"Members sometimes are scared about making the right decisions," Obama said, telling the group that they could make the difference in marshaling support that would help lawmakers come to the right decision.
Obama acknowledged that after his 2008 victory, he didn't do enough to keep supporters engaged. He said his oft-cited observation during last-year's campaign -- that Washington can't be changed from inside -- has always been his belief, and that Organizing for Action can ensure the voices of those who elected him are heard now that the election is over and the tough work of policymaking has resumed.
About 75 supporters and donors, including Google chairman Eric Schmidt, packed a wood-paneled restaurant at a ritzy hotel blocks from the White House to hear Obama, the headliner for the two-day summit. Unlike most of his campaign and White House events, the president spoke without a teleprompter. After Obama made brief remarks, reporters were escorted out as Obama mingled and took questions from attendees.
Outside the hotel, a few dozen protesters set up camp -- some bearing signs objecting to the president's policies on the use of unmanned drones.
Earlier on Wednesday, organizers claimed that they OFA is not a partisan organization aimed at electing specific candidates, but rather a volunteer-driven nonprofit focused on popular issues pushed by Obama, such as curbing gun violence, promoting immigration reform and addressing climate change.
"This is something that should be celebrated, not criticized," said David Plouffe, a former White House senior adviser.
Jim Messina, OFA's chairman and Obama's 2012 campaign manager, said: "I suppose we all could sit back and relax after the campaign and say we got him re-elected. But it's not `yes he can,' it's `yes we can."'
The group was formed by former Obama aides and is raising millions of dollars in unlimited amounts from donors and small-dollar contributors. Donors who attended the meetings at a Washington hotel near the White House were asked to contribute $50,000. Aware that many of those contributing to the new group also ponied up big for his campaign, Obama noted that being a politician is akin to being a perpetual college student, forever dependent on checks from mom and dad.
"I've graduated," Obama quipped. "I've run my last campaign. But we're not done with the work that led me to run in the first place."
The group is not accepting donations from corporations, federal lobbyists and foreign donors and has said it will release, voluntarily, the identities of donors who give more $250 or more on a quarterly basis.
Watchdog groups say the group runs counter to the spirit of Obama's opposition to the influence of money in politics and have cautioned that donors could get special access to the White House in exchange for large contributions.
J. Gerald Hebert, executive director of the Campaign Legal Center, said Obama's involvement with OFA "not only raises policy concerns relating to the purchase of influence over the administration, but also may cross the line in terms of the federal law banning the soliciting of gifts by any member of the executive branch, including the president."
OFA officials said they were on sound legal ground, noting that Obama can appear before any nonprofit group that advocates for public policy issues. White House press secretary Jay Carney has said there is no pricetag to see the president and has said that administration officials routinely interact with outside advocacy groups.
OFA plans to ramp up its activities across the nation with weekly, issue-oriented events
"Our role, quite simply, is to change the balance of power by being an organization, a network of grassroots strength, that is going to stand up for that agenda," said Jon Carson, OFA's executive director.