Originally posted at Personal Democracy Forum / TechPresident, in reply to a post by Micah Sifry called “The Obama Disconnect: What Happens When Myth Meets Reality”, which claims that Barack Obama has never really been committed to the grassroots.
A thoughtful post, Micah, but I disagree with the assumptions it’s based on, in particular what seems to be an assumption that Barack Obama promised, or could ever deliver, perfection.
Obama has always said that the goal is not perfection but “a more perfect union”. And he has always said that it was going to mean hard work (think back to how many times you’ve heard that phrase from him), not something he would wrap up and deliver to us in the first year.
The Obama campaign was, and the Obama presidency is, part of a great tradition of hard workers that includes the founders, Lincoln, FDR and King. And I would say that the role of the grassroots is disappointing only if you’re dissatisfied with the most grassroots-driven campaign and administration in history.
On the administration, I would start by noting that no entity like Organizing For America has ever before existed. I agree with David Plouffe: Of course you can’t maintain the intensity of a presidential campaign, but at the same time, two million volunteers working to advance legislation is not just very impressive – it’s never happened. And those two million didn’t, as you claim, just “put themselves in motion”. They were organized by OFA, using mybo, email and paid organizers placed in all 50 states – also unprecedented. I’m pretty sure OFA could be doing better. But I’m not shocked by that, and I think I see the path to improvement: stay involved and work with them on it.
OFA is not the end of it, though. As Personal Democracy Forum has chronicled, this administration is enacting the most significant open government effort in history, starting with Obama’s executive orders the day after he was sworn in and borne out by many initiatives since, including data.gov, FOIA reform and the recent Open Government Directive (OGD). In Joseph Tauberer’s summary (cited by you in an earlier post) “The OGD mainly covers two aspects of government transparency: using technology as a tool for data sharing and public participation in agency decision-making. We’ve seen the start of a culture shift this year in the executive branch, in parallel with actual progress throughout the country, and now the OGD outlines and codifies a vision for the next four months and, well, beyond.”
The grassroots are not actually running the government yet; we still do have a cabinet, agencies and departments. Throwing all that over immediately was always impossible – and undesirable, given that no one would know how to do that peacefully or successfully, not to mention democratically. The people who get hired to work in the administration still tend to be people with a lot of experience, expertise, connections and, yes, flaws. Sometimes the best person for the job has also made mistakes at some point in their past. It doesn’t necessarily follow that hiring them implies endorsement of those mistakes, or worse, corruption. Given the many times Obama has made difficult choices for ethical reasons, I think we could give him a little more credit.
You charge that “the special interests–banks, energy companies, health interests, car-makers, the military-industrial complex–sat first at the table and wrote the menu.” This is an extreme overstatement, again apparently based on perfectionism.
Yes, lobbyists are still too powerful. For a long time, they have amounted to a third house of Congress. But Obama is the president, not a dictator, so he can’t just make them go away, right now. He can reduce their influence, though, and he is doing that.
Critics say he should have mustered the grassroots to fight them. He did: At the beginning of the health care reform effort, for example, he repeatedly predicted an onslaught from the health insurance lobby, and recruited volunteers to respond. A great many did, and their efforts made an important difference. But that difference, on its own, was never likely to carry the day against such powerful and entrenched opposition.
So Obama took other measures as well. Another of his first actions on taking office was to order the strictest limits ever seen on lobbying an administration. (And remember that back when he won the nomination, one of his first actions had been to end lobbyists’ contributions to the Democratic Party – an expensive decision to make just as a general election was starting.)
Meanwhile, knowing that the health insurers, PhRMA and the AMA had succeeded in killing so many previous reform efforts, Obama took two of them, PhRMA and the AMA, off the battlefield – and made them allies. PhRMA and the AMA ended up joining with the SEIU and others to form Americans for Stable Quality Care, and have invested many millions promoting reform instead of fighting it.
This deal-making involved compromise – as it always does. No one has yet achieved a political system, especially a democratic one, that features no compromise. For example, maybe PhRMA could have given up more than $80 billion in drug discounts. But the goal was very significant progress, which looks like it’s going to be achieved, not perfection, which is impossible.
Turning to the Obama For America campaign: You complain that it “shared tasks with its supporters but didn’t share power”. But it did share power – ask any of the volunteer organizers who created state organizations from scratch before the campaign was able to. Did volunteers get to decide overall strategy? No, but that is another impossible standard, never promised.
Obama For America was not a perfectly flat organization, it was just the most grassroots-driven campaign in history. At the same time, it was directed by a core of only three people: Obama, David Axelrod and Plouffe. This combination of openness and discipline was what won the election.
The volunteers were a critical source of energy, ideas, influence and information (including all-important nightly uploads of voter contact data), but no, they didn’t get to run the campaign. That would have lost the election, as messages and tactics were diffused in thousands of different directions. Even blogs don’t run like that – they don’t spray every random post onto the front page, instead, someone runs the blog and members earn seniority based on their contributions over time. Many campaign volunteers and young staffers are now in positions of great responsibility. An example is Jeremy Bird, whom you mention, who started out in field organizing.
I can attest to the effectiveness of the campaign’s “openness with discipline”. I started as a volunteer on a press team towards the end of the Pennsylvania primary. I reported to the state HQ the evening I arrived. Within about 15 minutes I was at work collecting briefing information for an interview Obama was doing the next day. For the general election, I was invited to join press staffs in Michigan and then Colorado.
In both cases I was given as much responsibility as I could handle – and as would be useful in serving the mission. Did that mean I was invited to start telling Axelrod what I thought his communications strategy should be? Of course not. Not because Axelrod was too grand, but because that would have been a waste of time, both his and mine. That time was better spent doing something that would actually help win. The point wasn’t to keep people down, it was to make the best use of resources for the greater good.
You point out that Obama raised a lot of money from large donors and from the finance industry. But the fact remains that no campaign in history ever raised so much from so many small donors, or did such a good job of including those small donors in other aspects of the campaign. So what do you want? The most inclusive fundraising effort in history, or a perfect transformation of campaign finance, which also could very well have cost the election? I’m satisfied with the best effort in history, one that continues now.
Obama is of course fair game for criticism, as any democratic leader should be. But some critics seem to be complaining that the most grassroots-oriented president in history has not transformed all of American government and politics at a stroke. They shouldn’t blame him for failing to meet an impossible standard that they, not he, laid down.
The change he promised was that we would strive together towards a more perfect union. That’s what he’s delivering. And when I look at health care reform, the rescue of the economy, openness in government, the reform of the Justice Department and our transformed international standing, to name a few, I’d say it’s working.