Sunday, February 14, 2010

No We Can't

This article homes in on my greatest disappointment with the Obama
administration because it's been the squandering of that critical mass
energy which comes about only once in three or four decades. This has
profoundly affected every single major issue now confronting us and,
in turn, further enervates all of us. .

From: "Richard Menec" <>

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

TIM DICKINSON Feb 02, 2010

"Staff are replaceable. A mass of dedicated volunteers is not." ­ David
As the polls were closing in Massachusetts on the evening of January 19th,
turning Ted Kennedy's Senate seat over to the Republicans for the first time
in half a century, David Plouffe was busy reminiscing about the glory days.

The president's former campaign manager was nowhere to be found at the
sprawling war room of Organizing for America, the formidable grass-roots
army he had forged during the 2008 campaign. Instead, Plouffe ­ who serves
as a "supersenior adviser" to OFA and its only direct conduit to Obama ­ was
across town at a forum hosted by the Progressive Book Club, where he pimped
his memoir, The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack
Obama's Historic Victory.

It was a bitterly ironic way to mark the end of the president's first year
in office. Together with David Axelrod, Plouffe was the brains of Obama's
campaign, the man who transformed a shoestring organization into a high-tech
juggernaut. After the 2008 election, Plouffe had taken OFA, previously known
as Obama for America, and moved its entire operation into the Democratic
National Committee. There, he argued, 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. Fresh off the campaign, the group boasted 13
million e-mail supporters, 4 million donors, 2.5 million activists connected
through the My.BarackObama social network and a phenomenal $18 million left
in the bank. Even Republican strategists were staggered. "This would be the
greatest political organization ever put together, if it works," said Ed
Rollins, who was to Ronald Reagan what Plouffe is to Obama. "No one's ever
had these kinds of resources."

Yet rather than heeding the lessons of Obama's historic victory, Plouffe and
OFA permitted Martha Coakley to fumble away Kennedy's seat ­ destroying the
60-vote supermajority the Democrats need to pass major legislation. In
December and early January, when it should have been gearing up the patented
Obama turnout machine ­ targeting voters on college campuses, trumpeting the
chance to make history by electing Massachusetts' first female senator ­ OFA
was asking local activists to make phone calls to other states to shore up
support for health care reform. "Our Massachusetts volunteers were calling
into Pennsylvania or Ohio to recruit volunteers in support of the
president's agenda," admits OFA director Mitch Stewart.

It wasn't until 10 days before the election, after OFA finally woke up to
Coakley's cratering poll numbers, that the group sent out an urgent appeal
to members, asking them to help turn out Massachusetts voters from phone
banks across the country. But after having been sidelined by the White House
for most of its first year, OFA discovered that most of its 13 million
supporters had tuned out. Only 45,000 members responded to the last-minute
call to arms.

In the final week, volunteers organized 1,000 phone banks and placed more
than 2.3 million calls to Massachusetts. OFA also scrambled to place 50
staffers in the state to gin up a door-knocking operation. But it was too
late: In a race decided by 110,000 votes, 850,000 of those who voted for
Obama in Massachusetts failed to turn out for Coakley. "The
relationship-building process we did with Obama for America," concedes
Stewart, "is not something you can manufacture in three weeks."

The failure to reignite Obama's once indomitable field operation has left
many of the president's former campaign staff shaking their heads. "How in
the hell did we let that happen in Massachusetts?" asks Temo Figueroa, who
served as Obama's national field director and is now a political consultant
in Texas. "How in the hell did the White House not get Organizing for
America seriously engaged in this until there was a week and a half to go?"

As a candidate swept into office by a grass-roots revolution of his own
creation, Obama was poised to reinvent Washington politics, just as he had
reinvented the modern political campaign. Obama and his team hadn't simply
collected millions of e-mail addresses, they had networked activists, online
and off ­ often down to the street level. By the end of the campaign,
Obama's top 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.

As president, Obama promised to use technology to open up the halls of power
and keep the American people involved. "If you want to know how I'll
govern," he said, "just look at our campaign." His activists wouldn't just
be cheerleaders; they would be partners in delivering on his mandate,
serving as the most fearsome whip Washington had ever seen. "At the end of
the campaign, we entered into an implied contract with Obama," says Marta
Evry, who served as a regional field organizer in California for the
campaign. "He was going to fight for change, and we were going to fight with

The problems started before Obama was even elected. While his top advisers
worked for months to carefully plot out a transition to governing, their
plan to institutionalize its campaign apparatus was as ill-considered as
George Bush's invasion of Iraq. "There was absolutely no transition
planning," says Micah Sifry, the co-founder of techPresident, a watchdog
group that just published a special report on OFA's first year. In what
Sifry decries as a case of "criminal political negligence," Obama's
grass-roots network effectively went dark for two months after Election Day,
failing to engage activists eager for their new marching orders. "The
movement moment," he says, "was lost."

The blame, insiders say, rests squarely with Plouffe. "That was totally
Plouffe's thing," a top member of the president's inner circle recalls of
the transition planning. "It really was David."

By that point, at the end of the campaign, Plouffe had his eyes on the exit.
He was gaunt, exhausted. His wife was about to give birth to their second
child. He needed a break. "There was no question of my joining the
administration," he recounts in his memoir. So Plouffe, in a truly bizarre
call, decided to incorporate Obama for America as part of the Democratic
National Committee. The move meant that the machinery of an 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.

Steve Hildebrand, Obama's deputy campaign manager, tried to dissuade
Plouffe. "The DNC is a political entity," he says. "Senators who you are
going to need to put significant pressure on to deliver change ­ like Ben
Nelson of Nebraska, who was opposed to health care reform ­ are voting
members of the DNC. It limited how aggressive you could be." Hildebrand
pushed Plouffe to make "Obama 2.0" an independent nonprofit, similar to
FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity, the right-wing instigators of the
Tea Party uprising. Free from the party apparatus, Hildebrand argued, the
group could raise unlimited funds and "put enough pressure on conservative
Democrats to keep them in line."

But Plouffe was resolute. Obama was troubled by the prospect of big-dollar
donors driving an independent nonprofit, and the DNC offered a ready
infrastructure and fewer legal hurdles. "The president is a Democrat," says
Stewart, a veteran of Obama's victory in Iowa who took over from Plouffe as
OFA's director. "It would be very hard to explain why Obama's grass-roots
field team is not housed with his party."

Plouffe checked out to write his memoir ­ but as a senior adviser, he
continued to call many of the shots. In a muddy chain of command, Stewart
officially reports to the head of the DNC, but in practice he takes many of
his cues from Plouffe. "He has an incredible input on what we do and don't
do," says Stewart.

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. "There were a
lot of independents, and maybe even some Republicans, on his list of 13
million people," says Joe Trippi, who launched the digital age of politics
as the campaign manager for Howard Dean in 2004. "They suddenly had to ask
themselves, 'Do I really want to help build the Democratic Party?'"

In addition, with Plouffe providing less input in his inner circle, Obama
began to pursue a more traditional, backroom approach to enacting his
agenda. Rather than using OFA to engage millions of voters to turn up the
heat on Congress, the president yoked his political fortunes to the
unabashedly transactional style of politics advocated by his chief of staff,
Rahm Emanuel. Health care reform ­ the centerpiece of his agenda ­ 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.

"There were two ways for Barack Obama to twist arms on Capitol Hill," says
Trippi. "You can get the best arm-bender in town to be your chief of staff ­
and I don't think there'd be many people who would deny that Rahm is a
pretty good pick. Or the American people can be your arm-bender. What I
don't understand is why the White House looked at it as an either/or
proposition. You could have had both."

The shift in tactics left OFA sitting on the sidelines. A far cry from the
audacious movement that rose to the challenge of electing America's first
black president, the group has performed like a flaccid, second-rate MoveOn,
a weak counterweight to the mass protests and energetic street antics of the
Tea Baggers. Rather than turning out thousands of voters at rallies for the
"public option" in health care reform, the White House instructed OFA to
adopt a toothless, almost invisible approach: asking followers to sign a
generic "statement of support." In July, when OFA ran ads asking voters to
call their senators and urge them to vote for health care reform, the effort
was quickly slapped down by party leaders. "It's a waste of money to have
Democrats running ads against Democrats," fumed Senate Majority Leader Harry

Not only did the White House fail to crank up its own campaign machinery on
behalf of health care, it also worked to silence other liberal groups. In a
little-publicized effort, top administration officials met each week at the
Capital Hilton with members of a coalition called the Common Purpose
Project, which included leading activist groups like Change to Win, Rock the
Vote and MoveOn. In August, when members of the coalition planned to run ads
targeting conservative Democrats who opposed health care reform, Rahm
Emanuel showed up in person to put a stop to the campaign. According to
several participants, Emanuel yelled at the assembled activists, calling
them "fucking retards" and telling them he wasn't going to let them derail
his legislative winning streak. "We're 13-0 going into health care!" he
screamed. "We're not going to be 13-1!"

Emanuel also locked down OFA: When liberal activists approached the group
about targeting conservative Democrats, they were told, "We won't give you
call lists. We can't go after Democrats ­ we're part of the DNC." It was
exactly the danger that Hildebrand had warned about when Plouffe made OFA
part of the party apparatus. In the end, the activists scrapped the
organizing effort, leaving the president without a left flank in the health
care debate.

"Instead of channeling the energy of the base, they've been squashing it,"
says Markos Moulitsas, founder of the influential online forum Daily Kos.
"When special interests are represented by people like Joe Lieberman and Ben
Nelson, you've got to go after those people. Instead, you had OFA railing
against Republican obstructionists, when the Republicans were irrelevant to
the debate."

Given Emanuel's background as a legislative insider, it's not surprising
that the White House shelved its activist base. "They don't give a crap
about this e-mail list and don't think it's a very useful thing," a
well-sourced former campaign staffer told tech-President. "They want to do
stuff the delicate way ­ the horse-trading, backroom talks, one-to-one
lobbying." The feeling inside the White House, the ex-staffer said, is that
"unleashing a massive grass-roots army is only going to backfire on us."

What backfired, it turns out, was ceding populist outrage on health care to
the far right. Because OFA failed to mobilize the American people to
confront the insurance companies, it allowed industry-funded Republicans,
like former House majority leader Dick Armey, to foment a revolt by the Tea
Partiers, whose anger dominated the news. Stewart, the director of OFA, says
the failure to anticipate last summer's town-hall ragefest was his.
"Organizing for America did not properly plan for that first week of
August," he says. "That was an error on my part." OFA scrambled to rally its
troops, generating more than 300,000 calls to Congress on a single day. But
the belated effort typified the group's first year. "It's always reactive
and half-hearted," says Moulitsas. "The movement was built on the concept of
big change ­ but they haven't gone after the things you need to do to enact
change." Indeed, OFA's own numbers reveal a sharp drop-off in activist
participation: All told, only 2.5 million of its 13 million followers took
part in its health care campaign last year ­ and that's counting people who
did nothing but sign the group's "statement of support."

"It didn't work ­ with an exclamation point at the end!" says Rollins, the
former Reagan strategist. "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 of a revolution ­ as ours did
in '80 and '81 ­ you've got to feed them. You've got to make sure that they
feel important." Instead, says Rollins, OFA "e-mailed them to death, but
without any real steps to make them feel a part of the process, like they
felt a part of the campaign."

In the wake of Coakley's loss, OFA has been silent on the health care front.
"There hasn't been a single directive from OFA since Election Day in
Massachusetts," observes Evry, the former campaign coordinator. "No 'Let's
get those e-mails out there.' No 'Let's phone-bank.' No 'Let's target this
politician.' Nothing." The failure to secure a bill through Emanuel's
fuck-the-activists dealmaking has created a double whammy heading into this
fall's midterm elections: no legislative victory on health care, coupled
with widespread disillusionment among the party's base.

Acknowledging that it was blindsided in Massachusetts, the president has
summoned Plouffe back to the White House to oversee campaign efforts. The
move is an implicit admission that Plouffe's intermittent engagement was
part of the problem. "They thought this was the Harry Potter school of
organizing," says one insider. "Just wave your wand. But this shit isn't

The good news is, OFA's last-minute blitz in Massachusetts underscored what
it's still capable of. In just 10 days, the group generated more than twice
as many calls on Coakley's behalf as they did in support of health care last
year ­ an effort credited with helping to cut Republican Scott Brown's final
margin of victory in half. Yet asked if the lesson from Massachusetts is
that OFA should recommit itself to being a Democratic turnout machine this
fall, Stewart is noncommittal. "We're still figuring it out," he says.

Privately, some party leaders complain that OFA isn't doing enough to
campaign for vulnerable Democrats. The only true accomplishment from OFA's
first year, they say, is the work it's done to build a national
infrastructure for the president's 2012 re-election campaign. To reproduce
the organizational structure developed by Obama for America in 2008, OFA has
quietly deployed paid staff to all 50 states, building a network from state
directors all the way down to a corps of supervolunteers, trained in
organizing, who recruit an army of neighborhood team leaders. "There's a
skeleton of a re-election campaign already set up ­ beyond a skeleton," says
Figueroa, the campaign's former field director. "There's already meat to the
bone in every state in the union. Three years away from the next election,
that army is already being continually fed. If you're Barack Obama and his
political operation, revving the engine, how is that not a good thing?"

The failures of the past year, however, have left a strong sense of betrayal
among many who once were Obama's fiercest advocates. "After all the sweat
and tears of the campaign," says the creator of a popular pro-Obama website,
"we were owed the opportunity to fight for something." Adds another, "We
thought we had earned an ownership stake in the future of our country
through this campaign, but that ownership stake has been revoked."

Had Obama let his activists lead the charge and gone to the mat for health
care reform, would the outcome have been any different? "I can't say that we
would have health care reform," says Moulitsas. "But people wouldn't be so
demoralized. We'd have an engaged base still willing to fight for that
change. And I tell you what: We would not have lost Ted Kennedy's seat."

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1 comment:

  1. This analysis puts a lot in context for me. Thanks for showing how Ted Kennedy's seat could have been lost in such a short time after the euphoria of Barack Obama's win. The change I see certainly was not the one so many of us anticipated during Obama's highly successful campaign. I guess what we are seeing is politics as usual and Washington as usual.

    Still, hope dies hard, and I hope that the Massachusetts debacle helps Obama to change his course of this past year.


    Yvonne McCalla Sobers