Audacity To Hope
Change We Can Believe In
Rule of Law
Freedom From Lobbyists and Special Interests
Harm From Illegal Surveillance
Predatory Business Practices
Withdrawing From Iraq and Afghanistan
These are but some of the major buzzwords, issues and concepts Barack Obama based his candidacy and campaign on to convince the American electorate to sweep him in to office. Mr. Obama, however, has gone significantly in the opposite direction on each and every one since taking office. As Frank Rich noted, there is a growing “suspicion that Obama’s brilliant presidential campaign was as hollow as Tiger’s public image — a marketing scam…”.
Is there support for this allegation other than anecdotal evidence? Yes, and Micah Sifry has an excellent piece out detailing the basis:
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.
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.
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?
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.
It is an extremely interesting piece by Sifry, and I recommend a read of the entirety. For those that have not read David Plouffe’s book on the campaign, The Audacity To Win, or one of the other long form reports of the Obama 2008 campaign, Sifry lays open the hollowness of Obama’s “grass roots”. Use em and lose em appears to have been the Obama modus operandi. The American people were desperate for something to latch onto, and Obama and Plouffe gave them a slickly tailored package.
As Digby notes, this line by Sifry really sums it up:
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.
I think that is exactly right, and the needle in much of the activist base is moving from “demotivated” to downright demoralized and antagonistic. Yet Obama and his administration, notably Rahm Emanuel, indignantly continue to poke sticks in the eyes of the activist base and boast about it; and it is not from necessity, it is from design and pleasure.
Quite frankly, the seeds of this should have been seen coming. I have never forgotten the shudders I felt when I read two interrelated articles by Matt Stoller and David Dayen discussing how, heading into the 2008 general election, Obama was not just benefitting from, but devouring and commandeering broad swaths of Democratic base activist groups and their power, and actively working to marginalize and cripple those that didn’t assimilate into his Borg.
This isn’t a criticism; again, Obama made his bet that the country isn’t into ideological combat and wants a politics of unity and hope, and he has won at internally. In terms of the ‘Iron Law of Institutions’, the Obama campaign is masterful. From top to bottom, they have destroyed their opponents within the party, stolen out from under them their base, and persuaded a whole set of individuals from blog readers to people in the pews to ignore intermediaries and believe in Barack as a pure vessel of change.
All I’ll add is that it’s time to think through the consequences of a party where there is a new chief with massive amounts of power. I’ve been in the wilderness all my political life, as have most of us. The Clintonistas haven’t, and they know what it’s like to be part of the inside crew. We have a leader, and he’s not a partisan and he can now end fractious intraparty fights with a word and/or a nod. His opinion really matters in a way that even Nancy Pelosi’s just did not. He has control of the party apparatus, the grassroots, the money, and the messaging environment. He is also, and this is fundamental, someone that millions of people believe in as a moral force. When you disagree with Obama, you are saying to these people ‘your favorite band sucks’.
There’s nothing shadowy about this – it’s an extension of what the Obama campaign has been doing since he entered the race. He’s building a new Democratic infrastructure, regimenting it under his brand, and enlisting new technologies and more sophisticated voter contacting techniques to turn it from a normal GOTV effort into a lasting movement. The short-term goal is to increase voter turnout by such a degree that Republicans will wither in November, not just from a swamp of cash but a flood of numbers. The long-term goal is to subvert the traditional structures of the Democratic Party since the early 1990s, subvert the nascent structures that the progressive movement has been building since the late 1990s, and build a parallel structure, under his brand, that will become the new power center in American politics. This is tremendous news.
However, despite his calls that change always occurs from the bottom up, these structures are very much being created and controlled from the top down.
Stoller and DDay, although both seemed to have a nagging question or two, both thought that the gathering “Obama Nation” was a good thing and that once he took office the immense consolidated power and organization would, in fact, as Obama was jawing, be used to end the age old grip of corporate money and influence and propel good new and different policies into action. This pie in the sky was directly defied by passages in their own articles though. Not only was Obama consolidating Democratic power to serve only him from the top down, he was taking out people and groups that didn’t step in to his line.
I have heard from several sources that the Obama campaign is sending out signals to donors, specifically at last weekend’s Democracy Alliance convention, to stop giving to outside groups, including America Votes. The campaign also circulated negative press reports about Women’s Voices Women’s Vote, implying voter suppression.
He has bypassed Actblue, and will probably end up building in a Congressional slate feature to further party build while keeping control of the data.
The campaign has also, despite thousands of interviews with a huge number of outlets, refused to have Obama interact on progressive blogs.
I’m also told, though I can’t confirm, that Obama campaign has also subtly encouraged donors to not fund groups like VoteVets and Progressive Media. These groups fall under the ‘same old Washington politics’ which he wants to avoid, a partisan gunslinging contest he explicitly advocates against.
But wresting away ALL the power and consolidating it is I think a misunderstanding of how inside and outside groups can be mutually reinforcing and part of a more vibrant cultural and political movement, and how the culture is moving toward more decentralized, more viral, looser networks to organize. Obama’s movement, based on unity and hope, is working because politics is of the moment, a fad, Paris Hilton. To sustain that, you must institutionalize engagement, civic participation, awareness and action, even in a non-horse race year, as a necessary facet of citizenship. And there’s no reason to shut down reinforcing progressive structures that can keep it fun and interesting and vital.
Shutting down Democratic and progressive structures that do not toe his line is exactly what Obama and his right hand man, Rahm Emanuel, have done since the election. As Stoller and DDay noted, they actually started even before the election and accelerated after it. The deal was sealed when, immediately after the election, Obama chose the iron fist of DLC strongman Rahm Emanuel to lead his administration, immediately dumped Howard Dean and began shuttering Dean’s wildly successful fifty state apparatus.
There was only one reason to do that, and it was not to germinate a new grass roots policy force; it was to consolidate power and kill off any other voices and/or authority within the party. As Micah Sifry demonstrated, consolidation and exclusion were always a part of the Obama plan. Almost more disconcerting than Obama’s singular cornering of all the power and movement is his refusal to use it to propel new policies. Not even on healthcare did Obama even attempt to truly energize and mobilize the vaunted Obama network, preferring instead to leave it up to the lobbyists, in the bag Congressmen like Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman and corporate interests.
This is exactly what has made the progressive campaign and voice of Jane Hamsher, Cenk Uygur, Firedoglake and other awakening progressive movements so critical. It is crystal clear the Obama Presidency is less than it was advertised to be; the only route to correction is through power and action; assertion of independent power is the only thing they will respect and acknowledge. The change will not come through old school Washington politicians beholden to corrupt financial institutions, the insurance lobby and corporate interests. Politicians like Barack Obama and Rahm Emanuel.