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Obama Teams Canvass For Support


Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Barack Obama - the president now, not the candidate - sent canvassers knocking door to door across the country today. Their message: Push Congress to approve his budget and other ambitious programs.

No president has ever launched a campaign like this before to try to pass legislation, and the outcome will help answer a question that a lot of folks have been asking since the election. Can Mr. Obama use the same grassroots tactics that got him elected to govern? NPR's Daniel Zwerdling has the story.

(Soundbite of knocking)

DANIEL ZWERDLING: Did canvassers knock on your door today?

Unidentified Woman #3: Hi, I'm from Organizing for America. Do you know about us yet?

ZWERDLING: Because if they did, you might have figured this sounds more like an election campaign than something about the federal budget.

Unidentified Woman #3: Okay, we're part of Obama's army here.

ZWERDLING: This is a new political strategy at work, and every politician and every political analyst is going to study what happened today because if it works, it could change the way presidents build support for their programs.

As you already know, Barack Obama's election campaign has become legend. They amassed more than 13 million e-mail addresses. They used the Internet to raise money and organize volunteers.

So, President Obama went back to those tactics a few weeks ago to try to push his budget through Congress. For instance, if you are one of those 13 million e-mail addresses, you started getting videos.

(Soundbite of video)

Governor TIM KAINE (Democrat, Virginia; Chairman, Democratic National Committee): Hello everyone, I'm Tim Kaine, chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

ZWERDLING: Kaine doesn't make the most riveting videos, but he seemed earnest, and he asked people to organize parties at their homes. The guests would watch this video and presumably munch chips, and they'd discuss the president's agenda.

Gov. KAINE: It's not enough for an economic recovery plan just to be debated in the halls of Congress. It has to be understood by Americans how this plan will directly benefit them in their communities.

ZWERDLING: Next, those 13 million people on the e-mail list got a video from the president.

(Soundbite of video)

President BARACK OBAMA: Now, passing this budget won't be easy. We're already hearing the same worn arguments we've heard for years.

ZWERDLING: And then, the president asked everybody to mobilize.

(Soundbite of video)

President OBAMA: That's where you come in. That's why I'm asking you to head outside this Saturday to knock on some doors, talk to some neighbors, and let people know how important this budget is to our future.

ZWERDLING: So, canvassers fanned out with that message today in apartment buildings, at shopping malls, or just along the streets. A spokesman at the Democratic National Committee told me they don't know yet just how many people went canvassing. And reporters from NPR member stations in four states told us that some canvassers seemed disorganized. They didn't show up, or they forgot what they were supposed to say.

In any case, the DNC gave canvassers two asks, as they say in canvassing lingo. They were supposed to ask people to sign a petition.

Unidentified Woman #3: I wanted to ask you if you would be willing to sign a pledge saying you're on board with supporting Barack Obama's bold approach for renewing America's economy?

Unidentified Man #2: Okay. You said pledge. I almost thought you needed some money.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Woman #4: No.

ZWERDLING: And then, they were supposed to ask people to call or write Congress. A volunteer named Brenda Siegelman(ph) approached a man named Rave Miller(ph) at a farmer's market in Philadelphia.

Ms. BRENDA SIEGELMAN (Canvasser): What we're trying to do is, we're trying to get his budget passed without watering it down.

Mr. RAVE MILLER: His budget passed without watering it down?

Ms. SIEGELMAN: That's correct. It's already somewhat watered down.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MILLER: Oh, I'd like to see it watered down a lot more.

Ms. SIEGELMAN: Would you? Okay, well, thank you anyway for stopping.

Mr. MILLER: All right.

Ms. SIEGELMAN: It's the best you can do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ZWERDLING: But he may not be typical. Station reporters told us that most of the people they talked to ended up signing the pledge. So, of course, now everybody wants to know: Did President Obama's canvassing tactic work?

People who canvassed are supposed to call the Democratic National Committee and tell them how many signed the petition. And we should hear those numbers in the next few days. And then the key test is, will huge numbers of people deluge Congress with calls and letters, and will they say pass President Obama's budget? And unfortunately, the best answer to that question is the worst cliché in journalism: Only time will tell. Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Zwerdling
Daniel Zwerdling is a correspondent in NPR's Investigations Unit.
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