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What Role for Obama's Organizers in a Second Term?

BY Micah L. Sifry | Wednesday, November 7 2012

Mitch Stewart and Jeremy Bird, Obama 2012 national field directors

Now what? Four years ago, when Barack Obama first won election, his staff had prepared a detailed transition plan that covered all the conventional bases for taking the reins of government and starting to flesh out who would staff what agencies and departments. But it left out one element that no transition planner, Democrat or Republican, had ever faced before: what to do with the gigantic grass-roots army of paid organizers and volunteer supporters that had been summoned (and in some places, summoned itself) into existence to power his campaign to victory.

The lack of a plan was just a symptom of a deeper value choice by his leadership team. Whether that mass movement continued mattered much less to them than the inside game that they thought they knew how to play and win. What flowed from this was a series of choices--the dismantling of Howard Dean's decentralized "fifty state strategy" for the revitalization of the Democratic Party, the centralization of Organizing for America under the command of the DNC, and the choices to mostly use Obama's giant grassroots list to back his legislative priorities at the end of the sausage-making game, rather than allow that potent force to press for change in Washington.

As Jessica Shearer, a top Obama field organizer in 2008, who managed nine key states for the campaign, said a year ago at our PDF symposium on networked organizing after the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, the Obama team had basically "kneecapped" their grassroots after the 2008 victory. "If Dean had been put in charge of the Democratic Party after that election, that list might have really built the democracy. It might have built a party. It might have allowed people a place to engage. Instead, it was this weak echo chamber, where they couldn't be one step to the left or one step to the right of anything the president said."

Well, there was something in Obama's remarks during his victory speech on Election Night that suggested he perhaps knows he needs to take a different tack this time. His remarks were studded with call-outs to the tens of thousands of people who did the hard work that got him to a slender majority of the vote. "To the best campaign team and volunteers in the history of politics," he first shouted his thanks. And then his speech tied together the story of those volunteers with the story of a country fighting back against difficult economic times.

I know that political campaigns can sometimes seem small, even silly. And that provides plenty of fodder for the cynics who tell us that politics is nothing more than a contest of egos or the domain of special interests. But if you ever get the chance to talk to folks who turned out at our rallies and crowded along a rope line in a high school gym or — or saw folks working late at a campaign office in some tiny county far away from home, you'll discover something else.

You'll hear the determination in the voice of a young field organizer who's working his way through college and wants to make sure every child has that same opportunity. (Cheers, applause.) You'll hear the pride in the voice of a volunteer who's going door to door because her brother was finally hired when the local auto plant added another shift.

Most critically, after the standard call for both parties to come together to work on the challenges the country faces, Obama added, "But that doesn't mean your work is done. The role of citizens in our democracy does not end with your vote. America's never been about what can be done for us; it's about what can be done by us together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government."

With every election comes a chance to start anew. We shall see if this time there is a plan to do something different with Obama's organization. After all, he can't run for re-election. The only thing he seems to be running for now is a place in the history books.