Why you should care
Because she’s unrolling a model for presidents to be relevant years after the Oval Office.
It’s a tale as old as 2008: A 22-year-old pages through the autobiography of a little-known Democrat from Illinois on her commute home. Idle reading becomes a marathon night of passage highlighting and sentence underlining — our young protagonist is hooked. She quits her job, borrows a friend’s car and drives hundreds of miles to an old ice-skating rink: the Iowa headquarters for Barack Obama’s first presidential election campaign. “I showed up, was like, Hey, I don’t have any skills,” she tells OZY now, “but I studied diplomacy and speak foreign languages — do you need any help?”
Sara El-Amine’s story is that of many Obama supporters who turned from apathetic political bystander to idealistic grassroots organizer. The difference? Eight years later, while many of them have moved on to the private sector, or to other campaigns and causes, or even to bashing the president they once adored, El-Amine — who was once the youngest female senior staffer and then rose to be a national director of Obama’s reelection campaign — is still here. Since December 2014, the 30-year-old has been running the show as executive director of Organizing for Action (OFA), the multimillion-dollar nonprofit birthed by Obama’s campaign machine. It’s her job to use those millions to keep the machine chugging, via its 250 local chapters that train grassroots organizers stumping for Hillary and Bernie alike. It could be “the progressive version of the Koch brothers,” as Sidney Milkis, a University of Virginia political scientist, puts it.
“They’re going to be around for decades to come,” El-Amine swears of some 6,000 grassroots supporters. From Organizing for Action they learn phone banking, canvassing and microtargeting. Now, OFA just has to get those bleeding hearts to keep on pitching Obama’s pet projects, such as gun control legislation and the Iran Nuclear Deal, to its reported 30 million email subscribers, said to be the largest political email list ever made.
Past commanders in chief have spawned issue-based groups that outlived their legacies before — think the Clinton Foundation, the Carter Center and definitely all things Reagan — but this post-Obama “effort to stay active in policy with grassroots organizations” is revolutionary, says Milkis. The mere concept of a nonprofit presidential arm that can raise unlimited caches of cash — thanks to Citizens United — is new, he adds. For Obama, who will leave the Oval Office just 55 years old, OFA could be a national imprint for years to come.
Then again, it could flounder: After all, it’s easier to sell a poster with “Hope” and “Change” than with “Trans-Pacific Partnership.” And, Milkis says, so far OFA hasn’t “transcended red and blue America as they might have hoped.” El-Amine says she gets it, having faced her own frustration with the 13-month battle over Obamacare — it was her job to run advocacy on the issue in Arizona. “We thought it would be a three-month gig,” she says, “and then we’d move on to getting stuff done for the environment.”
With sparse brown bangs and energetic eyes, El-Amine speaks with a measured, rolling crescendo, not unlike the president whom she calls “the other man in my life.” Former colleague Brett Benson, a data expert who worked with El-Amine on Virginia get-out-the-vote efforts, says she shockingly keeps up that energy even on 16-hour campaign days with “boiler-room environments.” A graduate of Obama’s almost alma mater, Occidental College, El-Amine says such sunny activism is “in my DNA.” Her father, a doctor, was a war refugee from Lebanon; her mother, an Irish-Catholic New Englander — and together they raised five kids while being “the only” Arab-American family in tiny Duxbury, Massachusetts. When 9/11 happened, El-Amine grieved with the rest of her high school classmates — but unlike them, she became a target. Her first foray into activism included cussing out a bully (which earned her a trip to the principal’s office) and then preparing a speaker series explaining her faith and culture.
She’s worn plenty of cultural-identity hats: Her first gig within the Obama campaign was as a Latino outreach director, since she spoke Spanish. And the grand tour of America that is a political campaign has taken her everywhere — field organizing in Iowa, Idaho, Texas, Mississippi, Indiana, Colorado, Virginia. While walking door-to-door in 2008, she approached a home with a Confederate flag draped over it. Dun-dun. They turned out to be, she says, “the nicest people.” So El-Amine was briefed on the diversity of the country when she took over command of the southern, rural part of Virginia, which mostly went to McCain — but it was far from the sweep it might have been. And the numbers still came out for Obama, in case you forgot: 52-46. Four years later, she headed back to the dangerously purple state, which swung blue by just a margin.
“My family has a joke. We say, ‘You daydream about moving to an island and making pottery or something,’ late at night, when you’re working on yet another campaign,” El-Amine says. “And the joke is that if I moved to an island, I’d accidentally end up community-organizing it.”