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Marshall Ganz on How Obama Failed to Lead

BY Micah L. Sifry | Wednesday, November 3 2010

Marshall Ganz, the man who devised Barack Obama's grassroots organizing model in 2008, and a master community organizer, has an eloquent statement in the LA Times on what went wrong for Obama between 2008 and 2010. His main points are that Obama went from being a "transformational" candidate to being a "transactional" president, and that he also demobilized his movement and in effect unilaterally disarmed in the face of robust Republican opposition. Here's the gist:

"Transformational" leadership engages followers in the risky and often exhilarating work of changing the world, work that often changes the activists themselves. Its sources are shared values that become wellsprings of the courage, creativity and hope needed to open new pathways to success. "Transactional" leadership, on the other hand, is about horse-trading, operating within the routine, and it is practiced to maintain, rather than change, the status quo.

The nation was ready for transformation, but the president gave us transaction. And, as is the case with leadership failures, much of the public's anger, disappointment and frustration has been turned on a leader who failed to lead.

Obama and his team made three crucial choices that undermined the president's transformational mission. First, he abandoned the bully pulpit of moral argument and public education. Next, he chose to lead with a politics of compromise rather than advocacy. And finally, he chose to demobilize the movement that elected him president. By shifting focus from a public ready to drive change — as in "yes we can" — he shifted the focus to himself and attempted to negotiate change from the inside, as in "yes I can."

(Where have I heard that "Yes I can" point before? Oh yes, here.)

On that final point--the demobilization of the base--Ganz comes out and says in the clearest terms what a few of us (well, me and Ari Melber) have been saying since late 2009:

Finally, the president demobilized the widest, deepest and most effective grass-roots organization ever built to support a Democratic president. With the help of new media and a core of some 3,000 well-trained and highly motivated organizers, 13.5 million volunteers set the Obama campaign apart. They were not the "usual suspects" — party loyalists, union staff and paid canvassers — but a broad array of first-time citizen activists. Nor were they merely an e-mail list. At least 1.5 million people, according to the campaign's calculations, played active roles in local leadership teams across the nation.

But the Obama team put the whole thing to sleep, except for a late-breaking attempt to rally support for healthcare reform. Volunteers were exiled to the confines of the Democratic National Committee. "Fighting for the president's agenda" meant doing as you were told, sending redundant e-mails to legislators and responding to ubiquitous pleas for money. Even the touted call for citizen "input" into governance consisted mainly of e-mails, mass conference calls and the occasional summoning of "real people" to legitimize White House events.

It sure will be interesting to see how people like Jeremy Bird (a Ganz protege) and Mitch Stewart of OFA, along with the rest of Obama's political brain trust, respond to these criticisms. Now we have two well-known Obama campaign staffers--the other being chief blogger Sam Graham-Felsen--articulating a clear critique of the Obama political strategy and its betrayal of its online-empowered base. I wonder, at what point do other people who worked on the campaign and now either serve inside the Administration, or who went back into the private sector where they benefit from their successes in 2008, start speaking out?

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