Personal Democracy Plus Our premium content network. LEARN MORE You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

Obama's Online Army Creaks into Action on Health Care Reform (Or, What a Difference a Year Makes)

BY Colin Delany | Wednesday, September 2 2009

Also published on e.politics

Watching Obama's online army creak into action on health care reform is painful, particularly for someone who wrote about the ruthless efficiency of his online campaign for president. The enemies may be somewhat different this time around, even if their tactics feel familiar, but the biggest gap is between Obama's grassroots politicking then and now.

The ability of the townhallers and death panelists to grab the attention of the media and chattering class caught many by surprise, but that kind of surprise didn't seem to matter so much to the Obamans a year ago. Remember Sarah Palin's VP nomination acceptance speech? The next day, Obama's fundraisers played their list like a musical instrument, ginning up more political donations in a 24-hour-period than anyone, ever.

By contrast, Obama for America has struggled to get into the health care debate in any meaningful way over the past few weeks. In that time, Obama has been punched from all sides -- from conservatives, of course, using both legitimate arguments and the made-up fantasies of the right-wing fringe, but also from the Left, as activists and bloggers try to hold his feet to the liberal fire. Critical ads followed him on vacation -- part of a $60 million blitz by interest groups on all sides -- even as his (past) support for a single-payer system echoed in viral videos online.

But just as the Obama-is-Muslim meme dogged him through most of the presidential campaign, the person-to-person rumors may be the greatest danger to his health care agenda (though the six-healthcare-lobbyists-per-Congressmember will give them a run for their money). Not surprisingly, the White House has launched an online campaign to counter misinformation, including house party/pep rallies, a dedicated website with a social-media/tell-us-your-story angle (in Spanish, too -- the birthers and anti-immigrant types will LOVE that), plus an effort to get people to send in "fishy" mass emails (blow-back naturally ensued).

The targets? Rumor-mongers of course (including Drudge), but also the dreaded "special interests". And Obama's organizers aren't just preaching to the members of their existing choir -- taking a page from the presidential campaign's playbook, they're reaching out to the unconverted by running Google Ads on likely queries. For instance, search for "death panels" and you might find something like this:

Obama death panel Google Ad

Obama death panel Google Ad

Which will lead to a landing page like this one. Again as the campaign did in 2008, they're also running ads on the name "Barack Obama," such as the one to the right that appeared on and which led again to a custom landing page. So if they have the tactics and they have the example of last year's integrated effort, why has OFA fallen short so far?

One answer is simple exhaustion: Obama's grassroots volunteers and donors put so much work into his campaign in 2007 and 2008 that they're burned out. They may come back in a few years, but they still haven't had enough time to recover their enthusiasm and their drive to get involved. Another answer involves the fundamental difference between an electoral campaign and the often-ugly process of governing, since electing Barack Obama (or any other candidate) can be a shining goal to which to aspire, but passing a controversial piece of legislation is a murkier and messier proposition, particularly when there isn't a distinct bill to point to yet!

But the biggest factor may actually be institutional: compared with Obama's 2008 grassroots juggernaut, Obama for America is TINY, and not just financially:

When Bird arrived in Wisconsin last week, he recognized all the familiar hallmarks of an underdog fight. Gone were the 44 field offices across the state where Obama organizers had worked during the campaign; now Bird spent his visit searching for power outlets in Wisconsin coffee shops and conducting conference calls at sidewalk cafes. Gone were the 100 paid staffers who orchestrated an Obama victory in the state; now OFA employed one person in Wisconsin, Grandone, who hoped to hire two or three assistants if the budget allowed.

"Right now," Grandone said, "we are kind of building this thing as we fly it."

Building an airplane in flight is a process always fraught with danger, but at least Obama's presidential campaign had nearly two years to glue the wings on and get the engines running. OFA can build on their example and their legacy of goodwill among supporters, but a 100-fold reduction in professional boots-on-the-ground can't possibly help, particularly when you're dropped overnight into what could be the most important legislative battle of Obama's presidency.

Politics is hard! So if you've wondered why other presidential campaigns didn't equal Obama online in 2008, take note -- even his own campaign's successor organization has yet to do it. A year ago I wondered if Obama's online army would target Congress, and now we know that the answer is yes. What I wouldn't have guessed is that they'd have already beaten their swords into plowshares, right when the fighting was fixin' to start.


News Briefs

RSS Feed today >

Another Co-Opted Hashtag: #MustSeeIran

The Twitter hashtag #MustSeeIran was created to showcase Iran's architecture, landscapes, and would-be tourist destinations. It was then co-opted by activists to bring attention to human rights abuses and infringements. Now Twitter is home to two starkly different portraits of a country. GO

At NETmundial Brazil: Is "Multistakeholderism" Good for the Internet?

Today and tomorrow Brazil is hosting NETmundial, a global multi-stakeholder meeting on the future of Internet governance. GO

Brazilian President Signs Internet Bill of Rights Into Law at NetMundial

Earlier today Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff sanctioned Marco Civil, also called the Internet bill of rights, during the global Internet governance event, NetMundial, in Brazil.


tuesday > Reboots As a Candidate Digital Toolkit That's a Bit Too Like launched with big ambitions and star appeal, hoping to crack the code on how to get millions of people to pool their political passions through their platform. When that ambition stalled, its founder Nathan Daschle--son of the former Senator--decided to pivot to offering political candidates an easy-to-use free web platform for organizing and fundraising. Now the new is out from stealth mode, entering a field already being served by competitors like NationBuilder, Salsa Labs and And strangely enough, seems to want its early users to ask for help. GO

Armenian Legislators: You Can Be As Anonymous on the 'Net As You Like—Until You Can't

A proposed bill in Armenia would make it illegal for media outlets to include defamatory remarks by anonymous or fake sources, and require sites to remove libelous comments within 12 hours unless they identify the author.


monday >

The Good Wife Looks for the Next Snowden and Outwits the NSA

Even as the real Edward Snowden faces questions over his motives in Russia, another side of his legacy played out for the over nine million viewers of last night's The Good Wife, which concluded its season long storyline exploring NSA surveillance. In the episode titled All Tapped Out, one young NSA worker's legal concerns lead him to becoming a whistle-blower, setting off a chain of events that allows the main character, lawyer Alicia Florrick (Julianna Margulies), and her husband, Illinois Governor Peter Florrick (Chris Noth), to turn the tables on the NSA using its own methods. GO

The Expanding Reach of China's Crowdsourced Environmental Monitoring Site, Danger Maps

Last week billionaire businessman Jack Ma, founder of the e-commerce company Alibaba, appealed to his “500 million-strong army” of consumers to help monitor water quality in China. Inexpensive testing kits sold through his company can be used to measure pH, phosphates, ammonia, and heavy metal levels, and then the data can be uploaded via smartphone to the environmental monitoring site Danger Maps. Although the initiative will push the Chinese authorities' tolerance for civic engagement and activism, Ethan Zuckerman has high hopes for “monitorial citizenship” in China.


The 13 Worst Bits of Russia's Current and Maybe Future Internet Legislation

It appears that Russia is on the brink of passing still more repressive Internet regulations. A new telecommunications bill that would require popular blogs—those with 3,000 or more visits a day—to join a government registry and conform to government-mandated standards is expected to pass this week. What follows is a list of the worst bits of both proposed and existing Russian Internet law. Let us know in the comments or on Twitter if we missed anything.


Transparency and Public Shaming: Pakistan Tackles Tax Evasion

In Pakistan, where only one in 200 citizens files their income tax return, authorities published a directory of taxpayers' details for the first time. Officials explained the decision as an attempt to shame defaulters into paying up.