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Notes on the Obama Disconnect

Not the change we organized for?

Not the change we organized for?

I see that my colleague bmaz referenced a post I wrote about a year ago back at Digby’s place, about how Obama the candidate was consolidating structures within the progressive movement — field, voter registration, fundraising, messaging, new media, organizing — into his Presidential campaign.

It’s good to reflect back on this piece, especially in light of Micah Sifry’s superlative piece about how Obama’s grassroots movement demobilized in 2009. I actually think it holds up pretty well. I remember at the time getting a lot of criticism for one line — “this is tremendous news” – referring to some of that consolidation. But it was good news, in the context of the actual campaign. The organizing and voter contacts from May to November resulted in a 365 electoral-vote total, wins in historically red states like North Carolina, Virginia and Indiana, millions of new Democrats and a mandate for bringing in a transformative agenda. I saw first-hand people never involved in politics before working for months for Obama, building robust local structures that could have been leveraged to infuse new energy into local parties and bring forward a new generation of leadership.

So, why weren’t they? Sifry explores this in his piece, asking why Organizing For America was the dog that didn’t bark last year.

The truth is that Obama was never nearly as free of dependence on big money donors as the reporting suggested, nor was his movement as bottom-up or people-centric as his marketing implied. And this is the big story of 2009, if you ask me, the meta-story of what did, and didn’t happen, in the first year of Obama’s administration. The people who voted for him weren’t organized in any kind of new or powerful way, and the special interests–banks, energy companies, health interests, car-makers, the military-industrial complex–sat first at the table and wrote the menu. Myth met reality, and came up wanting […]

Now, there is a new enthusiasm gap, but it’s no longer in Obama’s favor. That’s because you can’t order volunteers to do anything–you have to motivate them, and Obama’s compromises to almost every powers-that-be are tremendously demotivating.

How much of this was pre-ordained by how Obama as a candidate shut down ancillary structures within the progressive movement? I definitely was wary of that consolidation at the time, because of the potential long-term impact. As I said then, Presidents need independent movements helping them. . .:

What’s less positive is the centralization of all these networks and amplifiers, and how that will work as a potential governing strategy, AND where that leaves those groups who have grown up in the current polarized environment, and prospered. I don’t think it’s the end of them – even if the big donors desert some progressive movement groups, the Obama campaign itself has shown the ability of a self-sustaining small-donor network. In addition, some of these groups, like the 2004 structures built to run field campaigns in the Kerry election, were so ad hoc and combustible that they offered no long-term hopes for success anyway, and the single-issue silos of the past have always had a range of flaws.

Still, outside amplifiers are going to be needed to enact Obama’s agenda. There’s a myth that progressive groups like MoveOn would dry up without a lightning rod like Bush to oppose but I don’t think that’s true. People aren’t only mad with Bush but really are seeking legitimate solutions and will get excited about them. If Obama is shutting out these organizers who are positioned to help him put through those solutions, can he possibly build a parallel movement big enough to combat the institutional barriers in Washington?

Instead, Obama’s White House tried to shut down any outside progressive groups who criticized any of his policies. This has actually backfired by this point; MoveOn is practically radicalized by now, recently calling for the rejection of the Senate health care bill, for example. But it let millions of supporters adrift, reliant on the OFA structure to organize them. And it simply has not stepped up meaningfully.

And that’s not necessarily just the fault of the OFA leadership, which tried to shoehorn a community organizing movement into the DNC brand, the epitome of a square peg and a round hole. But while I agree that much of this can be laid at the feet of the leadership, at least some of it should go to the organizers themselves, the state-level leaders who never sought anything other than taking marching orders, and who were unable to translate that to the larger rank and file. There was certainly the opportunity for the state-level people to turn OFA into something vibrant and workable within their own communities. I know that some groups have done that in particular CDs. But that didn’t happen in a widespread way.

I know that I was brought in by OFA people here in CA to do some educational workshops about California’s political crisis. The idea was to get people engaged and to channel that into real actions on the state budget. We had two meetings and then nothing. It just fizzled. Some of this could be due to inexperienced people who, without a major signpost goal like electing Obama, just faded away. But it’s also the fault of the organizers one level up, the state leaders, who just didn’t execute outside of rah-rah actions.

To a certain extent, the jury is still out. OFA was a proven election campaign model, not a governing model. We’ll see if they’ve totally disillusioned their base to the extent that they cannot motivate them to work for other candidates in 2010. An OFA organizer in CA I know would respond to this by saying they’ve been building capacity all year, and will be better poised to take advantage of things next year. I don’t know if I believe that, but next year will certainly be a test.

Nevertheless, the bungling of OFA had real-world consequences for governing. Progressive groups have started to fill the gap of a counterweight pressure on the left for Obama, but that came much too late. A good chunk of the first-year mandate was lost, and a command-and-control organizing movement couldn’t return its supporters to the energy level of the campaign. The blast emails are left unopened, the White House YouTube channel unwatched, the base moved on to other projects.

I don’t think that the political team at the White House understands the enormity of their problems. You really can’t fool people more than once, especially when you oversell the ability for a bottom-up movement for change to actually advance an agenda in Washington, and then describe the crumbs that result as a pure distillation of that change agenda. But it may be healthy for them to have some adversity at this point. If the outside groups can gather their own steam and operate independently, they can create that cultural and political force that nobody in Washington will be able to rein in.

There are obstacles to that; karoli doesn’t realize that so many progressive groups aren’t asking for money because they’re vibrant, but because they’re HURTING, due to a combination of the bad economy and the funders not wanting to upset the White House.

However, if progressive groups can find the formula and convince the funding apparatus that movements can succeed where even Presidents fail, they would be well-positioned to pick up where the core of the Obama movement left off, as a decentralized, independent, outside organizing force.

…Micah Sifry has some additional thoughts on how Obama could have sustained his movement, if he chose to.

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David Dayen

David Dayen