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One More Response to Karoli on the Obama Disconnect

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, January 4 2010

Dear Karoli:

Obviously, we don't know each other. I didn't know if Karoli was your real name or your nom-de-blog; thanks for clearing up that confusion with your latest post. You clearly don't know me or my work, or you wouldn't be accusing me of "criticizing from afar." I forgive you.

I'm sorry if you think I'm being disrespectful of your passion. Actually, I really like it. People who are passionate about something are the ones who drive change. I just want passion married to facts, rather than illusions. And here's the facts about Obama, campaign finance, and his grassroots base:
-The early money he raised (in 2007) came heavily from the finance sector; I think you and I don't dispute this.
-The "internet and grassroots activists" that "fueled and funded" his campaign were critical to giving him the edge needed to beat Hillary Clinton in the primaries (which is why I sang their praises in the post you dug up).
-All that internet- and activist-driven organizing was given a lot of lip-service credit for electing Obama, but the day after the election Wall Street was calling the shots on the most critical decisions of the nascent administration, while no one had a plan for keeping the grassroots movement going.
-If Obama indeed remembered the "millions who dug in and gave what they could," how then do you explain his embrace of Larry Summers, Timothy Geithner, et al? The question I asked at the beginning of my original post still stands: how did "It's All About You" produce trillions in bailouts and guarantees for Wall Street?

Your analysis of Obama's funding is based on several common mistakes about presidential campaign finance. For example, the fact that Obama took no lobbyist or PAC money is irrelevant. PAC money has always been a negligible (less than 1%) source of funding for presidential candidates; it all flows to congressional candidates. Presidential candidates like to brag about taking no PAC money; it's a meaningless claim, but it sounds good on the stump. Yes, he took almost no money from registered lobbyists in 2008, but he raised tens of millions from economic interests. Most analysts of campaign finance understand very well that a check from an individual employed by, say, Goldman Sachs, is highly correlated with the interests of the company, not the interests of its "housekeeping staff and secretaries." Likewise, the $42 million Obama tallied from retirees has no real political importance, because those people aren't organized givers the way the financial sector is, like other major players in the economy and politics.

That said, it was and is notable that in relative terms, Obama was somewhat less dependent on the traditional big money that finances election campaigns, and his massive success at motivating small donors to give to him again and again created the potential that he would be less beholden to the usual powers-that-be. Had those small donors and grassroots activists been effectively organized into a continuing force for change this past year, perhaps I would have written a different post than The Obama Disconnect.

It's interesting to me that you are happy "as an early supporter, organizer and continuing contributor" to OFA and believe that it "has continued to serve its purpose [of] mobilizing and informing supporters." Great! I never said OFA wasn't engaging anyone; I've written several posts over the last year noting that it was making some headway. See for example:
-Organizing for America, Obama's Sleeping Beast, Starts to Awaken, July 15, 2009
-OFA's "Time to Deliver" is Now; Watching Obama's Army Flex Its Muscles, October 20, 2009

But it's not all a bowl of cherries. While it's true that OFA has sent a lot of emails to the grassroots, it has done much less to connect the grassroots to each other. Emailing you in June to tell you to email some local "summer organizers" in your congressional district and tell them your concerns isn't the same thing as connecting the people on the OFA list in your district to each other. And doing it in June rather than last December means a fraction of people responded. The bottom line: Inviting people to give input isn't the same as sharing power. Do you know how OFA makes decisions? If you don't, you don't have power in the organization.

Look, I think it's terrific that you and other Obama volunteers are still fired up and ready to go. More power to you. The more that ordinary folks roll up their sleeves and get involved in the process, the better. But your experience with OFA appears to be anachronistic.

Best wishes,


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