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Tough question for Democrats: Why didn't Obama's OFA create policy success?

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At an Organizing for Action summit today President Obama dealt some compliments to his former campaign apparatus, but as a policy pusher with "permanent commitment" to progressive causes OFA has seen some rough times. (AP Photo)

When President Obama surveyed the room Thursday at the summit for his once-mighty campaign apparatus, he saw a political group that never lived up to the lofty billing promoted by supporters.

Organizing for Action, or as it was previously known, Organizing for America, was once seen as a way to take the grassroots appeal that catapulted a junior senator from Illinois into the White House and translate that approach into enacting the president's agenda.

The latest incarnation of the group, which Obama addressed Thursday to make his pitch on securing broader trade powers, was never really effective at pushing legislation across the finish line.

And it certainly isn't changing any minds within progressive circles on the issue of trade, which has revealed a rare split between Obama and the progressive wing of his party.

"Some of these folks are friends of mine, I love them to death," Obama told the OFA audience of Democrats resisting his trade agenda. "But in the same way that when I was arguing for healthcare reform, I asked people to look at the facts. Somebody comes up with a slogan like 'death panels' doesn't mean it's true."

After winning re-election, Obama trumpeted OFA as an avenue for progressing the Democratic mission, calling it a "permanent commitment" to progressive causes.

The president said the group would push for "immigration reform, climate change, balanced deficit reduction, reducing gun violence and the implementation of the Affordable Care Act."

As it turns out, most of those issues turned into legislative defeats for the White House. And the rollout of the Affordable Care Act became one of the low points of the Obama presidency.

The White House would counter that the lack of legislative success is less a reflection on OFA than obstructionists in Congress.

After failing to secure legislation, the president ultimately decided to address many of those policies through executive action. That unilateral approach is still opposed by most Americans, surveys have repeatedly shown.

Like Obama, his political group proved more effective at campaigning than influencing legislation, Democrats complain. Many of the heavyweights once attached to the organization have long moved on.

And when OFA got out of the business of directly electing candidates, Democrats accused Obama's backers of being stingy with data that could have helped elect progressive candidates of the future.

"What could have been," one veteran Democratic strategist lamented.

"I don't think anybody really understood how to use it outside the context of a political campaign," complained a Democratic pollster.

The organization is now mostly focused on Obama's post-presidential agenda and training young leaders.

But the group still wades into its fair share of political fights.

Last month, for example, the organization emailed to its vast list, "The Climate Change Fantasy Tournament," a play on March Madness meant to mock Republicans devoted "to publicly denying the science behind" rising temperatures. OFA has also focused on bolstering Obamacare enrollment, greeting each milestone in sign-ups and encouraging supporters to get others in the program.

The group continues to push for an increase in the minimum wage, even though it is a non-starter on Capitol Hill.

What the faction has never become, however, is a major vehicle for affecting policy decisions in Washington. And it's not clear what will become of the group when Obama leaves office.

Yet, Obama still framed the group's work on Thursday in the loftiest of terms.

"I'm proud of you," he said. "I hope all of you are proud of what we've done together."