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The Obama Disconnect: What Happens When Myth Meets Reality

BY Micah L. Sifry | Thursday, December 31 2009

"Collectively all of you, most of you whom are, I'm not sure, of drinking age, you've created the best political organization in America, and probably the best political organization that we've seen in the last 30, 40 years. That's a pretty big deal....We don't have a choice. Now, If we screw this up, and all those people who really need help, they not going to get help. Those of you who care about global warming, I don't care what John McCain says, he's not going to push that agenda hard. Those of you who care about Darfur, I guarantee you, they're not going to spend any political capital on that. Those of you who are concerned about education, there will be a bunch of lip service, and then more of the same. Those of you who are concerned that there's a sense of fairness in our economy, it will be less fair. So, now everybody's counting on you, not just me. But what a magnificent position to be in: the whole country is counting on you to change it for the better...Here you are five months away from changing the country." --Barack Obama, speaking to his campaign staff days after Hillary Clinton conceded the Democratic nomination to him, June 6, 2008

"The more we can enlist the American people to pay attention and be involved, that's the only way we are going move an agenda forward. That's how we are going to counteract the special interests." --Barack Obama, speaking to a campaign audience in Indianapolis, April 30, 2008

As 2009 comes to a close, and with it, the first year of the Obama administration, one big question seems to be hanging over the man who said he had "The Audacity to Hope," and promised his supporters "Change We Can Believe In." That question can be summed up with two simple pictures.

How did this...

produce this?

After all, the image of Barack Obama as the candidate of "change", community organizer, and "hope-monger" (his word), was sold intensively during the campaign. Even after the fact, we were told that his victory represented the empowerment of a bottom-up movement, powered by millions of small donors, grassroots volunteers, local field organizers and the internet. A few examples to refresh your memory:

From Fast Company's March 2009 cover story on Chris Hughes, the Facebook cofounder who led the development of Obama's online community (or "MyBO"): -“The theme of the campaign, direct from Obama, was that the people were the organization.” -“Trusting a community can produce dramatic and unexpected results.”

From National Journal's April 2009 profile of Joe Rospars, the Obama campaign's new media director: -"It was going to be something organic. It was going to be bottom-up," Joe Rospars said.

From Rolling Stone's March 2008 "The Machinery of Hope" story on the Obama campaign: -"Obama didn't just take their money," says Donna Brazile, Al Gore's campaign manager in 2000. "He gave them seats at the table and allowed them to become players.”

And from Esquire's March 2009 capstone story on Obama campaign manager David Plouffe: -“Obama owned the Web because Plouffe believed in a few smart kids and let them go a little nuts.”

The truth is that Obama was never nearly as free of dependence on big money donors as the reporting suggested, nor was his movement as bottom-up or people-centric as his marketing implied. And this is the big story of 2009, if you ask me, the meta-story of what did, and didn't happen, in the first year of Obama's administration. The people who voted for him weren't organized in any kind of new or powerful way, and the special interests--banks, energy companies, health interests, car-makers, the military-industrial complex--sat first at the table and wrote the menu. Myth met reality, and came up wanting.

In terms of the early money that was raised by his campaign in 2007--and this is the most influential money in politics--more than one-third (36%) of his total came from the financial sector (compared to 28% for Hillary Clinton), reported campaign finance expert Thomas Ferguson. Between January and August 2007, according to the Campaign Finance Institute, 60% of Obama's donations were in amounts of $1000 or more--a smaller proportion than Clinton, but still a majority of his crucial early funding. In terms of Obama's overall funding, nearly half of his donations came from people giving $1000 or more.

Should we really surprised that someone with so much early support from Wall Street and wealthy elites overall might not be inclined to throw the money-changers out of the temple?

Nor, it is clear, was Obama's campaign ever really about giving control to the grassroots. As Zephyr Teachout wrote here a while back, the campaign shared tasks with its supporters but didn't share power. In some notable cases, volunteers were given substantial responsibilities in the field, and access to more data than would typically be shared by most top-down organizations. But in terms of empowering anyone, Obama's campaign structure empowered its managers more than anyone else. It's just silly for Mitch Stewart, the head of Organizing for America, the successor organization to the Obama campaign, to email his list yesterday saying,

"Early this year, millions of you chose to keep working together and create Organizing for America" [and] "you built a massive organization, driven by local leadership"

when the local base of the Obama campaign had no meaningful say in the creation and structure of Organizing for America, and there is no evidence that OFA is actually driven by anything but what its DNC-paid staff and White House advisers want. If Stewart, or Jeremy Bird or Natalie Foster or any of the other good people working for OFA want to refute this by sharing details of OFA's governance structure and how the local leadership actually drives the organization, I'm happy to be proven wrong.

The Useful Myth of the Obama Campaign

I've always thought that the idea of Obama as grassroots champion was more myth than reality, especially after reporting on how his campaign treated one genuine grassroots activist, Joe Anthony, who had spent more than two years of his life nurturing a page on MySpace dedicated to Obama, well before there was any campaign, only to have it stripped out of his control when it became a valuable campaign asset. But I also thought this was a useful myth because it generated rising expectations both here and abroad, not only in what Obama might do if elected president, but also in what anyone might do today using their greatly enhanced powers to communicate and collaborate around common causes. (In case you haven't noticed by now, I tend to be pretty skeptical of all politicians, and far more interested in small-d democratic self-empowerment as the best path to a better society.) The problem for Obama and the Democrats today, as they head into 2010, is that much of their activist base appears to have swallowed too much of the wrong half of the myth: they thought that Obama would be more of a change-agent, and never really embraced their own role.

Now two new books have come out that enable us to draw a much clearer picture of the relationship between Obama and his base, the role of the internet, and the gaps between myth and reality, what was and what is. The first book, by campaign manager David Plouffe, called The Audacity to Win, has gotten a decent amount of attention since it came out in November, including this detailed reading by Colin Delany here on techPresident. The second, "Electing the President 2008: The Insiders' View," edited by Kathleen Hall Jamieson of Annenberg Public Policy Center, came out in late October, but as far as Google knows there hasn't been a single review anywhere.

I learned a lot from The Audacity to Win, especially about the personal sacrifices Plouffe made over the course of the campaign, in terms of separation from his family, and also about how the world of politics appears from the highest bubble in a campaign structure. Plouffe also writes in detail about how he and the rest of the senior leadership of the campaign developed their overall strategy, how they determined that they needed to build an alternative power structure to challenge "the strongest establishment front-runner in our party's history" (p. 21), and how that led them to emphasize building a vast cadre of campaign volunteers who were expected to be small donors, local organizers and message spreaders. Plouffe also doles out all kinds of delicious tidbits about the twists and turns of the campaign sure to delight any politics junkie.

A close reading of Plouffe suggests that his understanding of Obama's grassroots support went through an important evolution during the course of the campaign. At first, his attitude towards the base appears completely utilitarian; it was useful for Obama to appear "grass-roots driven" as a counterpoint to Hillary Clinton's backing from the political establishment. Thus, he writes, "I had initially pursued rallies to maintain the perception of the campaign as grass-roots driven....Free rallies provided a nice balance to the [David] Geffen-style high-roller events, and the database was growing nicely every day." (p. 47) Over time, though, Plouffe began to see having a large volunteer base as inherently valuable in its own right. Describing low-dollar events that were held alongside fat-cat affairs, he writes,

"We treated these citizen fundraisers as no less important than our larger raisers. They were asked to join conference calls with Barack, me and other senior staff so we could thank them for what they were doing and give them updates on the campaign. They believed their effort was valued--and it was--so they dug deeper and kept raising. This was not a tactical relationship. It was authentic. And that authenticity became a very powerful driver in the connection between Barack Obama and his supporters." (p. 50)

Later, he describes supporters "beginning to take ownership of the campaign, small piece by small piece" (p. 75), and dwells on the efforts of Chris Hughes, one of the campaign's leading online organizers, to encourage volunteers in the non-early states to start organizing locally even if no campaign staff were there on the ground. "Get busy on your own," he quotes Hughes as saying. "Take the campaign into your own hands." (p. 92). Ultimately, Plouffe writes, Obama's delegate edge in the February 2008 primary and caucus states--which ultimately made for his margin over Clinton in the long slog to June--was due to these volunteers' efforts. "Our grassroots supporters again deserve the lion's share of credit. The farther we got from Iowa, the more important our volunteers were. The campaigns in these states were shorter and we had fewer staffers on the ground. The volunteers built our campaigns in the February states and executed incredibly on the ground." He ends this discussion with an anecdote about one of the campaign's major labor union backers who, in the general election, was still insisting that Obama pay people to do door-knocking and phone calls and to rely more on local party and labor organizations. "He was one of many who, even after witnessing the endgame [of the primary fight], discounted our grassroots strategy in favor of the dusty old playbook," Plouffe writes, dismissively.

But the question raised by Plouffe's book is, given the grassroots base he helped develop in support of Obama and how powerful it became by the fall of 2008 (raising $150 million in the month of September alone, including more than $10 million the night of Sarah Palin's acceptance speech), why he didn't do more to keep that muscular organization going into Obama's presidency? To put it another way, why did Plouffe discount his own grassroots strategy in favor of the dusty old playbook used by White House insiders for decades? Why wasn't more done to extend that sense of ownership meaningfully into the life of the Administration? If you could trust your volunteers to carry the campaign in all sorts of important ways, why not also give them a real say in how they could shake up Washington?

The answer, ultimately, is that Plouffe and the rest of Obama's leadership team, wasn't really interested in grassroots empowerment. Instead, they think they've invented a 21st century version of list-building, and to some degree they're right. (It's for that reason that I think of the Obama campaign as the first 21st century top-down campaign, while McCain's was the last 20th century top-down version). For Plouffe, the gigantic Obama email list, its millions of donors and its vibrant online social network were essentially a new kind of top-down broadcast system, one even better than the old TV-dominated system. Near the end of his book he writes:

"Our e-mail list had reached 13 million people. We had essentially created our own television network, only better, because we communicated with no filter to what would amount to about 20 percent of the total number of votes we would need to win...And those supporters would share our positive message or response to an attack, whether through orchestrated campaign activity like door-knocking or phone calling or just in conversations they had each day with friends, family, and colleagues."[Emphasis added] (p. 364)

Plouffe's attitude towards Obama's base is stated quite plainly in the Jamieson book, which consists of the transcripts of a series of campaign post-mortem discussions held in early December 2008 with top officials from both the Obama and McCain organizations, and is chock full of fascinating anecdotes and admissions from both camps. "We wanted to control all aspects of our campaign," Plouffe declared in his talk. He is discussing the Obama campaign's decision to opt out of general election public financing limits, and in so doing to avoid the Democrats' 2004 experience, which he and campaign strategist David Axelrod had both gone through, of dealing with the non-coordination rules placed on independent advertising. "We wanted control of our advertising, and most important, we wanted control of our field operation. We did not want to outsource these millions of people, and these hundreds of thousands of full-time volunteers to the DNC or any other entity." (pp. 37-38, Electing the President)

When it came to planning for being in government, it turns out that Plouffe, along with David Axelrod, was a chief advocate for bringing in then Rep. Rahm Emanuel as Obama's chief of staff. He writes, using a baseball analogy: "Rahm was a five-tool political player: a strategist with deep policy expertise, considerable experience in both the legislative and executive branches, and a demeanor best described as relentless." (p. 372) Note that nowhere in that vital skill-set is any sense of how to work with the largest volunteer base any presidential campaign has developed in history. Rahm Emanuel came up in politics the old-fashioned way; organizing and empowering ordinary people are the least of his skills.

The New Enthusiasm Gap

In The Audacity to Win, Plouffe writes often of an "enthusiasm gap" that he saw between Obama's supporters and the other Democratic candidates, notably Clinton. Back then, there was plenty of evidence to support Plouffe's claim: Obama was surging on all the online social networks, his videos were being shared and viewed in huge numbers, and the buzz was everywhere. We certainly wrote about it often here on techPresident. Now, there is a new enthusiasm gap, but it's no longer in Obama's favor. That's because you can't order volunteers to do anything--you have to motivate them, and Obama's compromises to almost every powers-that-be are tremendously demotivating. The returns OFA is getting on email blasts appear to be dropping significantly, for example. "“People are frustrated because we have done our part,” one frustrated Florida Obama activist told the Politico. “We put these people in the position to make change and they’re not doing it.” (See also this petition from 400 former Obama staffers.) DC insiders may blame the fickle media, or the ugliness of the cable/blog chatter, or the singleminded Republican opposition, for the new enthusiasm gap. These are all certainly factors. But I suspect that when the full history of Obama's presidency is written, scholars may decide that his team's failure to devote more attention to reinventing the bully pulpit in the digital age, and to carrying over more of the campaign's grassroots energy, may turn out to be pivotal to evaluations of Obama's success, or failure, as president.

Plouffe's narrative ends, frustratingly, with no discussion of his role in overseeing the campaign's transition into Organizing for America. Given that his wife gave birth to their second child the day after the election, some of this absence is understandable. But Plouffe wasn't fully on leave in the months after the election--he continued to sign campaign emails and clearly played a part in reviewing the feedback collected by the campaign in the weeks following the election when the field staff went through an extended process of soliciting suggestions from volunteers, super-volunteers, neighborhood team leaders, and people on the email list. More than half a million responded to an online survey on OFA's future, Plouffe announced back in December 2008, with 86% saying they felt it was important to help the Obama administration pass legislation through grassroots support; 68% agreeing that it was important to help elect state and local candidates who share Obama's vision; and a surprising 10% indicating that they would be interested in running for elected office. Remember those numbers? No one else does either.

Now that Obama is President, Plouffe--a well-paid adviser to the DNC and OFA-- apparently doesn't see the same need as he did during the campaign for muscular local organization, even of the top-down kind. In his 40-minute interview with Ari Melber of The Nation (and regular techPresident contributor) a few weeks ago, he explains that the White House doesn't need to be putting its new media operation on the same high level that the campaign did. "In the White House, obviously you're not really raising money and you're not really doing organizing," he says to Melber. (Really?) "The main focus is to help deliver message." Hence the new media team belongs as a subset of White House communications, as opposed to "digital strategy." The dusty old playbook at work.

A close parsing of the Melber interview, however, suggests that Plouffe may be having some second thoughts over the decision to downgrade the Obama grassroots arm after the campaign ended. Noting that Obama won the election by overwhelmingly winning most of the votes of the 15 million people who voted for the first time in 2008, Plouffe tells Melber that most of these people pay no attention to political news. Having a way to reach them directly, the way the campaign did with its online and field organizing, is a mighty asset, he argues. But then he admits that Organizing for America is operating with a staff that is a fraction of the size of the campaign's 6,000-plus, and that email open rates are perhaps 20% at best. "Is it the same intensity as the campaign? Of course not," he admits.

Could things have been different? It's an unprovable assertion. But comments like Plouffe's "of course not" seem like a self-fulfilling prophecy. I have heard many stories of Obama supporters who desperately wanted to keep the grassroots campaign going after November 4th, of youthful staffers in the Chicago office blindly trying to field their calls for guidance, and of leaders offering no direction. This much is clear: when Plouffe dropped out post-election to reconnect with his family, and people like Joe Rospars and Chris Hughes decided to go back to the private sector, the odds of anyone being able to advocate--from the inside of the White House--for a more robust role for grassroots political engagement between Obama and his base, dropped to near zero.

In the face of strong questioning from Melber about signs of declining support for Obama among young voters, and in the vastly lower counts he is getting on his Youtube video, Plouffe refuses to give out hard, checkable metrics on the health of the Obama base. Hearing Melber describe the disgusted reaction of uber-blogger Markos Moulitsas to a recent OFA fundraising email, Plouffe somewhat hotly replies, "It's easy to take potshots, but I'm very closely in contact with the people who make up the heartbeat of the ground level of Obama for America, who are still out there." (Telling that he says "Obama for America," not "Organizing for America.") He asserts:

"We've had a couple million people out there volunteering for health care, quietly in communities, helping maintain support. It's different from a campaign; you're not out there saying, 'Register eight voters today.'.... I quite frankly am thrilled that over two million people, which is a lot, have done something on health care, meaning: they've gone out and knocked on doors; they visited a congressional office; they helped organize a press conference. It's happened in all 50 states, and we think it's a small part of why health care will get done."

I'm sorry, but when two million people are in motion in favor of something, because they put themselves in motion, we know what that feels like. It's called a movement. It started to happen in 2007-08, and it hasn't happened since.

Previous posts on this topic:

Organizing for America, Obama's Sleeping Beast, Starts to Awaken, July 15, 2009

Obama as Crowdsourcer; Organizing the Country for Change and Accountability, February 8, 2009

Organizing for America Launches; Structure TBD, January 17, 2009

The Other Transition: Whither Obama's Movement, December 6, 2008 Marshall Ganz on the Future of the Obama Movement, November 20, 2008

The FISA Protest and MyBO: Can We Talk? Can They Listen?, July 3, 2008

Obama's Organization and the Future of American Politics, June 8, 2008

Obama, the Internet and the Decline of Big Money and Big Media, February 6, 2008