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The Right Gets the Obama Disconnect Wrong

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, January 4 2010

I hate to break it to my friend Mark Tapscott, who I have made common cause with (and broken bread with) over the issues of government transparency and accountability, but my end-of-the-year post on the Obama Disconnect should not be read as saying, "the truth about the Obama campaign in 2008 was almost exactly the opposite" of the mainstream media's description of him as bottom-up and people-driven. I know this is as hard for folks on some parts of the Right, so wound up in their intense dislike of Obama, to understand, as hard as it seems to be for folks on some parts of the Left, so passionate in their support for him, but the picture I tried to describe--obviously not as successfully as I would like--is more nuanced than that.

Obama's campaign did engage millions of people in active support--not just by giving money (though his total of nearly 4 million individual donors dwarfs what Bush and Kerry achieved in 2004), but also by taking action, making phone calls, knocking on doors, creating and spreading messages online and offline, etc. As a mass participation phenomenon, it was similar to both the Howard Dean online explosion of 2003 and the George Bush 72-hour ground campaign of 2004 in the degree of distributed involvement of volunteers, only at a scale much larger and a level of sophisticated organization never seen before. You cannot simply caricature it as one more top-down beast, unless you really aren't interested in reality.

By claiming that my piece debunks the mainstream media's reporting of Obama's popularity in 2007-08, Mark is trying to pull a fast one on his audience, which apparently is hungry for any and all validation it can find that that Obama's election was a big scam. It wasn't.

The problem I am trying to unravel is more complex, and generally hidden by how poorly the media covers politics and organizing. It's the issue of who is empowered by what kind of organization, and whether Obama has failed to translate his success in channeling mass participation in electoral politics in 2008 into mass participation in governance politics in 2009. I've expanded on that in a couple of post already, so I won't repeat myself here.

But there's a different issue that I want to engage Mark on. Mark writes that he expects a big liberal crack-up soon, as

"those who expected digital-driven liberation [] rebel when they [realize] they are instead getting toxic doses of thoroughly old-style command-and-control government and policies. Sifry's post could be an early tremor warning that just such an upheaval is coalescing on the political horizon. These folks worked for Obama believing he would usher in fundamental, digital-driven democratic change; instead they find themselves shunted off the sidelines, used at best as PR props for White House messaging by old-school liberal politicians and by former Obama digital campaign higher ups like David Plouffe who sold out to them. And they don't like it at all."

Actually, I think the situation is messier. Obama has made some bold promises about making government more open, participatory and collaborative--let's call that Mark's "digital-driven democratic change." And so far, Obama's record on delivering on those promises is mixed, depending where you look. I think the White House itself is doing less than it could on this front, while many government agencies, from the State Department to NASA, are positively blowing my mind at what they're starting to do.

It's true that I think, as I wrote, 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." But I also think that when the full history is written, it may be that Obama's initiatives in opening up massive amounts of government data and mandating bold experiments in participatory and collaborative governance--many of which are just beginning--could turn out to be the most transformative and positive elements of his presidency. The potential for "we.gov" certainly bears more watching, and constructive support where earned.

I don't know why Mark has been so quick to throw in the towel on that possibility; perhaps his Heritage Foundation training and reflexes are too strong to let him withhold judgment when the opportunity to score political points seems so easy. But it's far from clear that Obama is taking a "bureaucratic top-down mentality" to every aspect of government. You shouldn't draw a simple line from how they've managed the evolution of Organizing for America to how they're managing the work of seven million federal employees. (The same goes for you, Michael Barone, and you, Michael Laprarie.