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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 Epolitics.com 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.

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