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Obama's "Big Things" Email is an "Unforced Error"

BY Micah L. Sifry | Thursday, April 28 2011

As Nancy Scola noted here yesterday, Obama campaign manager Jim Messina may be an unlikely video star, whose David Plouffe-like "strategy update" to the campaign's base has been getting almost as many views as one from the President announcing his re-election bid. But an email today from Obama to his list titled "Big things" seemed oddly disconnected from the obvious passions firing up his core base at the moment.

The email is a straight-out fundraising appeal that starts out:

If it were easy to do the big, meaningful things we believe will make our country better -- if it were quick -- someone would have done those things long before any of us showed up.

We've chosen to do something hard.

You know that our victories so far have been hard won: taking the difficult steps necessary to put our economy back on track, reforming Wall Street excess despite an army of lobbyists against us, and making health care more affordable and accessible despite well-organized opposition by those who profit from the status quo.

You also know we have not yet done everything we set out to do -- not nearly.

But that's a reason to work harder, not to let up. That's why we're building this campaign now. And you have to take ownership of it.

You played a critical role in building our campaign last time around. So I will be direct: Can you step up and make a donation of $75 to get us started for 2012?

What's missing? Um, any reference to the hot-button news of the week: the release of Obama's long-form birth certificate and the seemingly unending controversy over the issue. Longtime techPresident contributor and Nation writer Ari Melber calls this an "unforced error." He told me earlier today:

From a purely strategic political perspective, the mainlining of the birther attack is a major mobilizing opportunity, and it's the kind of thing they were adept at during the campaign, but have been reticent to do in the OFA/governing period. ...Also, the core activists opening these emails are news consumers, this was the big political story, so choosing to send a message like this on such a big day - a day that was even intense and emotional for many supporters and African Americans - without any reference to it makes it feel like the campaign messages are coming from a different planet, rather than providing special information and a direct line to Obamaland. Therefore, if they don't want to acknowledge this or message around it in dialogue with the core supporters, then hold off on an email from Barack for a few days. It reminds me of when they tried fundraising off the health care compromise that removed the public option -- the day Markos declared the list "spam."

I think Ari is spot on. While the level of intensity around the 2012 election is nowhere as high as it was, say, in the fall of 2008, it is striking how far away from the actual moment this Obama email feels. Consider this video from progressive political activist and satirist Baratunde Thurston, which emotionally rips into Donald Trump for his shameless opportunism on the "birther issue." It's gotten 65,000 views in just one day, for a person just talking into the screen for seven minutes, a lifetime in the YouTube universe.

For years now, it's been obvious that OFA's approach to its base has been radically different from the days of the Obama campaign. Then, the campaign stoked supporters passions. Now, they try to temper them. Instead of firing people up in ways that might be uncontrollable, OFA sought to keep its base engaged with innocuous activities that shook few windows and rattled few walls. (I've heard, internally, that this was referred to as the "hamster wheel" approach.) The result is what I've called "The Obama Disconnect."

Ari, who wrote a detailed study of OFA's first year after the election that we published, adds, "The precedent in '08 was giving supporters some way to get Obama's back on this stuff - fight the smears website, calling into talk radio, all that stuff you remember - and this sets a different tone, whether it means to or not." It remains to be seen whether Obama's new campaign team will figure out how to find a new groove; today's off-key email from the President suggests they have some work ahead of them.