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Obama Team Works To Keep Grass Roots From Drying Up In Second Term

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On Wednesday, President Obama will meet with middle-class Americans who will be affected by a tax increase if the country goes over the fiscal cliff. The White House put out a call for their stories last week.

That dialogue with the American people is part of a broader White House effort to keep campaign supporters engaged during Obama's second term. It's a big change from the first term — and it's not an easy undertaking.

Four years ago, Obama took office with an email database of 11 million supporters.

Nancy Taylor of St. Louis was one of those supporters. And as the Obama administration waged its first-term battles on the stimulus, health care and the debt ceiling, what she heard from the president was basically ... crickets.

"All I really got from the White House were Christmas cards," she says. If Obama had asked for something, Taylor says, she "definitely" would have been interested.

"I just felt like everything was up to the politicians in Washington at that point," she says.

Andrea Lee of Chicago was in the voter database, too. She had knocked on doors and worked the phones for the campaign. After the election, she did nothing.

"I was a person with hands ready to do something, and, you know, I did want to continue the momentum," she says. "It just wasn't clear what to do."

At the start of Obama's first term, Kombiz Lavasany handled online communications for the Democratic Party. He says the Obama team knew how to organize for a campaign. But it had no idea how to use those tools to govern.

"We were watching a Democratic administration come in for the first time since 1992," he says. "And most of us hadn't lived in an age where the Internet really existed as a mobilizing tool. So we were getting to see how this played out really for the first time ever."

The White House was consumed with a tanking economy. Mobilizing the base could have seemed like a partisan act when the president had been elected on a promise to work across party lines. So with nobody watering the grass roots, they kind of shriveled up.

The first time that really changed was just over a year ago, when Obama presented a job creation plan to Congress.

"I ask every American who agrees to lift your voice. Tell the people who are gathered here tonight that you want action now," the president said in the Sept. 8, 2011, speech to a joint session of Congress. And people responded: The phone system in the Capitol crashed with the flood of phone calls.

This coincided with the start of the 2012 campaign — a new opportunity for the president to re-energize the base that had been sitting around waiting for an assignment.

Now, after millions more door knocks and phone calls, Obama is back for another four years.

White House press secretary Jay Carney says the administration won't make the same mistake it made last time.

"Some of the lessons that we learned over the last four years," he says, are about how "engaging the public on these sometimes chewy policy debates is important because they care and they have a deep stake in the outcome of the debates."

Engaging the public is not as easy as it sounds.

After this year's election, Lee, the Chicago volunteer, hopped on a conference call with tens of thousands of other volunteers. Obama thanked people, and then a campaign organizer pointed everyone to a website to stay involved.

"So then I thought, 'Great, there's a way to be connected,' " she says. "But then when I went to that website, the tool kit is really just like images that you would put on your Facebook background or like a desktop background."

The campaign also sent volunteers a long survey after the election. And last week the White House urged people to use Twitter and Facebook to promote Obama's plan for dealing with the fiscal cliff.

Obama campaign manager Jim Messina admitted last week that this is still a work in progress.

"One thing I know is that people want to be involved in supporting the president's agenda in the next four years," he said at a breakfast event hosted by Politico. "How that looks is a discussion we need to have with our grass roots."

In a way, this is Obama's bread and butter — not so different from the community-organizing work that launched his career in Chicago.

But figuring out how to do it on a national scale with a big, messy issue is a challenge nobody has tackled before.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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