By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's re-election campaign is morphing into a non-profit group that will try to build public support for the president's policy goals, including gun control and an overhaul of immigration laws.
The group, which was announced on Friday in a video featuring first lady Michelle Obama, is similar in structure to the non-profit groups that pumped millions of dollars into ads during last year's presidential campaign. The group will be known as Organizing for Action and be led by Jim Messina, who managed Obama's re-election campaign.
The move signals that the Democratic president wants his formidable political organization to be a lobbying partner in policy debates in Washington - perhaps beyond his second term in the White House, which expires in January 2017.
It also reflects something of an evolution in Obama's thinking about big-money groups that have become a significant influence in American politics.
During the 2012 presidential campaign, Obama was initially a critic of such non-profit groups, saying they could allow the wealthy to have a disproportionate impact on elections and policy. Such groups can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money and do not have to disclose their donors as long as they do not specifically advocate for political candidates.
Democratic officials said on Friday that while it was not required to do so, Organizing for Action would disclose the names of its donors. It was unclear whether the group would disclose the amount each donor contributes.
Non-profits - along with sister groups known as "Super PACs" that support candidates directly, but must disclose their donors - helped make the 2012 campaign the most expensive in U.S. history.
Obama, his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, and their allies spent about $2 billion during the campaign, most of it on ads attacking the other side.
'FINISH WHAT WE STARTED'
Messina said the restructured group was an effort by senior Democratic officials who helped Obama win a second term to transfer the energy and passion from the campaign to backing Obama's second-term agenda.
"We'll continue to support the president in creating jobs and growing the economy from the middle out, and in fighting for issues like immigration reform, climate change, balanced deficit reduction and reducing gun violence," Messina said.
Some Democrats said the group could help Obama avoid the loss of momentum and focus that often hits second-term presidents.
Obama outlined a plan this week to reduce gun violence by proposing that Congress issue a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips. In coming months, he will push for an immigration overhaul, and he is locked in a battle with congressional Republicans over taxes and spending.
"Let's be clear, all that hard work was about more than one election," Michelle Obama said in the video on the new group's website. "So if we want to finish what we started and truly make the change we believe in, we can't stop now."
NO DONATIONS FROM LOBBYISTS
The new group is distinct from a group called Organizing for America, which emerged from Obama's 2008 election. It fell under the auspices of the Democratic National Committee and was not as effective as many Democrats had hoped.
Democratic officials involved in the new group said it would focus on issues, not work for candidates. Organizing for Action will not accept donations from lobbyists, Democratic officials said.
Even so, Viveca Novak, spokeswoman for the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign finance watchdog, called the new group "another way that funders can kind of ingratiate themselves with people in power."
But, Novak added, "we think that disclosure (of the group's donors) is critical."
Andy Smith, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire, said it was uncertain how effective the new group would be.
"I don't know what the strategy will be to move people and the tactics that they are going to use," Smith said. "But it's interesting and certainly a way to capitalize on the networks of people they have. It's like the machine is built and still together, why not try to use it?"
(Editing by David Lindsey and Peter Cooney)