Where in the World Is Obama's Missing Millions (people that is!)?
While the Tea Partiers were on the move and the Republicans patented 'just say no,' Obama's aides and advisors sent his grassroots army packing.
If you're anything like me, it's likely that sometime over the past fifteen-+ months since the election of Barack Obama, you've asked yourself, Whatever happened to the millions of activists/hopetivists that enthusiastically participated in, and/or contributed to, Obama's presidential campaign?
By the time the 2008 presidential campaign was over, Obama for America had 13 million e-mail supporters, 4 million donors, and 2.5 million activists connected through the My.BarackObama social network and some $18 millions left in the bank, Rolling Stone magazine recently pointed out. Long-time Republicans were amazed by OFA's success: "This would be the greatest political organization ever put together, if it works," Ed Rollins, Ronald Reagan's campaign manager, told Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson. "No one's ever had these kinds of resources."
Why did the Obama administration give up such a massive political advantage? Was it saving its troops for the proverbial political rainy day? Was Team Obama so taken with the notion of bi-partisanship that it didn't understand the realty of the conservative movement's commitment to the "permanent campaign"?
In the February 18, 2010 edition of Rolling Stone, Tim Dickinson provides some much-needed insight into what happened to the missing millions in an article titled "No We Can't: Obama had millions of followers eager to fight for his agenda. But the president muzzled them - and he's paying the price.' In the end, the dissolution of the grass roots movement was a result of a number of things, including the resignation of David Plouff, Obama's campaign manager, the prevailing notion that insider politics trumps grassroots activism, and a series of massive miscalculations on the part of Obama's key advisors -- most notably Rahm Emanuel, the president's chief of staff - and the Democratic Party's leadership.
Take the health care reform debate for example: Last summer, while the Tea Partiers were grabbing headlines and cable news television time by rocking town hall meetings across the country in opposition to healthcare reform, Obama's multitudes remained silent. While poll after poll appeared to indicate majority support for a "public option," Team Obama refused to embrace that position or any position close to it. Confused and angered by what appeared to be a lack of both direction and political will on the part of the administration, grassroots activists stayed away from the fray - and they were encouraged to do so by the Obama administration. Thus, there were no major demonstrations or rallies in support of healthcare reform legislation.
Finally, last month, only when it was clear that the Democratic Party was headed for an extraordinarily embarrassing defeat in Massachusetts did party leaders try and recall the troops. Unfortunately, there were few ready to re-enlist, and the Senate campaign of Margaret Coakley came crashing down.
Grassroots army moved into DNC headquarters
Dickinson writes that Obama for America, "the formidable grass-roots army" that Plouffe "had forged during the 2008 campaign" and which had undergone a name change to Organizing for America, was for all practical purposes neutered by being moved lock, stock, and email addresses into the control of the Democratic National Committee. The reason for doing this was that Plouffe - who no longer was working with Obama and who went on to write his memoir, "The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama's Historic Victory" -- argued that "the people-powered revolution that Obama had created could serve as a permanent field campaign for the Democratic Party, capable of mobilizing millions of Americans to support the president's ambitious agenda," Dickinson reports.
"Obama and his team hadn't simply collected millions of email addresses, they had networked activists online and off - often down to the street level," Dickinson points out. "By the end of the campaign, Obama's foot soldiers were more than volunteers. They were seasoned organizers, habituated to the hard work of reaching out to neighbors and communicating Obama's vision for change."
Symbolically, Obama's Election Day victory appeared to signify the beginning of a new movement-driven kind of politics; a partnership for change. However, almost immediately after Election Day, "Obama's grass-roots network effectively went dark for ... failing to engage activists eager for their new marching orders," Dickinson notes.
Some "insiders" have taken to blaming Plouff. After the campaign, he left to be with his wife for the birth of their second child, and to devote time to writing his memoir. It apparently was Plouff that "decided to incorporate Obama for America as part of the Democratic National Committee," Dickinson reports. Instead of turning Obama for America into a potentially aggressive actor for change with a great deal more support and resources than many of the conservative groups that populate the Washington political landscape, Plouff was committed to handing the operation to the Democratic Party.
"The move meant that the insurgent candidate, one who had vowed to upend the Washington establishment, would now become part of that establishment, subject to the entrenched, partisan interests of the Democratic Party. It made about as much sense as moving Greenpeace into the headquarters of ExxonMobil."
".... The decision to shunt Organizing for America into the DNC had far-reaching consequences for the president's first year in office. For starters, it destroyed his hard-earned image as a new kind of politician, undercutting the post-partisan aura that Obama enjoyed after the election ..."
In addition, "Obama began to pursue a more traditional, backroom approach to enacting his agenda," writes Dickinson:
"Rather than using OFA to engage millions of voters to turn up the heat on Congress, the president yoked his political fortunes ro the unabashedly transactional style of politics advocated by his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel. Health care reform ... was no longer about mobilizing supporters to convince their friends, families and neighbors in all 50 states. It was about convincing 60 senators in Washington. It became about deals."
OFA was sidelined: supporters were disillusioned and demoralized. While Tea Partiers were in the streets shouting no to healthcare reform, OFAers were receiving email from the DNC requesting their signatures on a bland "statement of support." When the Common Purpose Project -- made up of groups like Change to Win, Rock the Vote and MoveOn - was formed to run ads putting pressure on conservaDems to support healthcare reform, Rahm Emanuel "put a stop to the campaign." Dickinson reports that at one of the meetings of the Common Purpose Coalition, Emanuel showed up and "yelled at the assembled activists, calling them 'fucking retards' and telling them hew wasn't going to let them derail his legislative winning streak." (Emanuel's "fucking retards" remark has since become manna from heaven for Sarah Palin.)
According to Dickinson, Emanuel effectively "locked down the OFA" preventing them from going after any conservative Democrats. Instead of using a mobilized, enthusiastic, and active base, Emanuel pursued politics the old-fashioned way; "horse-trading, backroom talks, one-to-one lobbying." One White House ex-staffer told Dickinson that administration officials felt that "unleashing a massive grass-roots army is only going to backfire on us."
The rest is history. Republicans just said no; Tea Partiers had some fun and began to prosper; some conservaDems were reluctantly brought on board through some noxious deal-making on the part of the administration; OFAers were effectively shut down and shut out of the process; and healthcare reform remains on the skids.
Former Reagan strategist Ed Rollins summed it up well:
"It didn't work - with an exclamation point at the end! They didn't keep the organization alive. They thought it was out there to use whenever they wanted to use it. But with constituents who feel like they've been part ofd a revolution - as ours did in '80 and '81 - you've got to feed them. You've got to make sure that the feel important. OFA e-mailed them to death, but without any real steps to make them feel a part of the process, like the felt a part of the campaign."
By the final week of the desperate Coakley campaign, Dickinson writes that "OFA discovered that most of its 13 million supporters had tuned out .... [and] only 45,000 members responded to the last-minute call to arms." And while "volunteers organized 1,000 phone banks and placed more than 2.3 million calls to Massachusetts," it was more like trash time in a basketball game where the losing team manages to cut into the margin of the winning team's victory, but nevertheless the game - in this case the race for the senate seat held for decades by Ted Kennedy -- had been lost much earlier on.
These days, Plouffe is back at the White House. Health care reform is hanging by its well-chewed fingernails. And, the base is demoralized. Will the base return to action? Possibly. Ultimately, it will be the actions of the Obama administration that will either motivate the grass roots to get back into the fray or convince them that not much has really changed in Washington after all.