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The Obama Disconnect: What Could Have Been?

BY Micah L. Sifry | Sunday, January 3 2010

One question that a number of people have raised in response to my post on The Obama Disconnect is essentially, "What's your alternative? What should the Obama team have done to keep the new political movement it had spawned going as a force for change? And how could they have better reconciled Obama's role as president of the whole country with his role as leader of a political organization beholden to him?" That's absolutely a fair question. Here's what I think could have been done:

First, the Obama team could have immediately made "keeping the movement going" as high a priority as the formal transition process was in the months of November/December/January right after the election. Their failure to do so should be seen as an act of criminal political negligence. They literally did no pre-planning for this, and left their base completely in the dark as to whether myBO would continue to exist, and what, if any, the next steps were to be. That shows how little imagination existed among the leadership, and a clear sign of the "dusty old playbook" (Plouffe's term) at work.

I'd say that a great deal of air went out of the tires in those first months simply from that failure of imagination and communication. There's a side story here that I don't have the permission to publish but trust me, some well-connected people tried to address this issue in September and October of 2008, developing a robust new web platform for post-election engagement of Obama's supporters, but they were rebuffed. Channeling the base into apolitical "service" activities (this is where top field organizer Buffy Wicks ended up, for example) was hardly a good solution to the "keep the movement going" problem, though it was probably beneficial in other ways.

Second, and this is the most critical part in my view, they could have set out to introduce and connect local Obama supporters to each other, organized by congressional district. This is the missing piece that could have altered the track of Obama's legislative agenda--visible, insurgent, civic pressure groups keeping the heat on each member of Congress. Yes, there's a risk that these people wouldn't hew to the White House line on every issue and likely ask for more than what Obama and crew thought they could deliver, but that's movement politics. Your outside forces alter the terrain on which the insider forces then bargain (hello, "Teabaggers"!).

The problem, I think, is that Obama didn't really believe in having an outside strategy, or at least not one that he completely controlled. During the campaign he did everything he could to bottle up anyone who might offer an outside strategy--which made a certain sense in presidential campaign terms (527s and independent expenditure groups often end up wasting resources and working at odds with a campaign's priorities). So, the odds were always stacked against him choosing to enable this dynamic. But some part of Obama understands the value of movement organizing. In a post-election interview with Ebony Magazine, which I wrote about here, he said, "We won because the American people mobilized for change... It really was people at a grassroots level who carried our campaign financially, who carried it organizationally, and we don't want that to dissipate."

How could they have addressed the problem of local OFA groups wanting to go their own way, without embarrassing the White House if their demands strayed from the message emanating from the Oval Office? They could have given those local groups a choice (rather than an edict): "If you want funding and staff support from the DNC, accept policy direction from us. If you want to organize on your own, you're on your own." That would have led to a situation where some volunteers would have chosen to affiliate with the DNC (and heck, doesn't the Democratic party want more local chapters--obviously that question is complicated by local politics), and some would have said, we'd rather be independent.

Maybe you'd have congressional districts with both types of groups working. But it would have been the members' choice and thus their motivation to make the situation work. And either way you'd probably have hundreds or thousands of vibrant local groups in existence arrayed around "continuing the movement" on their own terms, and in connection with each other, supporting each other's efforts, rather than this limp list-based DC-centered operation. (Marshall Ganz offered one vision of how this might work here.) Instead, right now you have David Plouffe, Mitch Stewart, Jeremy Bird, Natalie Foster et al--people I respect for their hard work--trying to command and control a volunteer movement. That can only work if the base is really motivated, and it obviously isn't working very well now.

One additional note: I don't place all the blame for this situation on Obama and his campaign strategists, though they certainly had the most latitude to do something different (as they did during the campaign when they viscerally understood how badly they had to create an alternative power structure to the Clinton machine). I would also ask why most observers and analysts pay so little attention to the details of political organizing. Politics is not only about what leaders say and do in Washington and on TV. Political organizing is the basis for political movements, which in turn alter the climate for politics inside Washington.

And yet, if I had to tally up all the reporting that I've seen on the actual work of building the Obama campaign organization it would fill, at most, a thimble. Americans have a notably thin understanding of what it takes to change anything, in part I think because our story-tellers and meaning-makers prefer to trade in myth over reality too. (Thus we get Rosa Parks acting on her own, for example.) This cycle of ignorance is self-reinforcing: reporters don't ask power players about political organizing because they don't understand it; power players don't think it matters because reporters don't ask them about it.

[P.S. I see folks like Karoli of the Momocrats and Mark Tapscott of the Washington Examiner have each written interesting responses to my original piece, both of which misunderstand my point in varying ways, and I'll have some comments on those reactions in a bit.]