The Obama Disconnect: A Belated Response to Micah Sifry

Before the new year, Micah Sifry came out with a provocative, much-discussed piece on the failures of the Obama organizing model in government. At once, the piece is a surprising indictment of the Administration's modus operandi from one of its supporters, but the reasons the indictment came about are not surprising at all. Like 43 similar outfits before it, the Obama White House is essentially a top-down operation.

Indeed, it's easy to dismiss Sifry's ideal of autonomous, almost leaderless political movements as essentially incompatible with the work of government. The contrast between the populism of the Obama campaign and the unmet promises of the Obama Administration is an easy one to make, but I suspect there's a tad of inflated expectations at work, borne of a misunderstanding of the fundamental motives of Obama for America and the community organizing spirit that seem to lay behind it. Sifry is disappointed that the fervor and "bottom up" organizing of the campaign hasn't translated to the White House, but when has the excitement and lofty goals of a campaign ever translated fully into the drudgery of running the federal government? Is such a transference even possible?

Probably not. The job of a campaign is not to transform the ethos of governance. The job of the campaign is to win the campaign. The job of the Administration is to transform the ethos of governance. Whether one leads to the other is entirely extrinsic to the campaign since the White House involves a totally different set of actors, more likely to be experienced government hands like Rahm Emanuel than Alinskyite field organizers. We can discuss what is and is not personally important to Obama as a community organizer all we want. But the imperatives of governance are completely different than those of a campaign, as Obama learned taking office in an economic crisis and George Bush learned after 9/11. 

Rather than buck the tide of conventional "top-down" politics, the campaign's "bottom up" grassroots emphasis was actually top-down perfected for the Internet era -- a logical and sensible response by the campaign to Obama's celebrity. 

In the end, the campaign did not have to make any hard decisions that allowed supporters to organize in new ways. Rather, I would argue, the supporters made the decision on their own, as expressed in the tremendous and early self-organized action for Obama early on, and the campaign would have been brain dead not to play along. (Many campaigns are still blind to this, even today, but the default baseline position for a campaign at the national level is to play along when supporters start doing massive amounts of stuff on their own.) 

The campaign's decision to default to open is expressed in Obama campaign manager David Plouffe's book, The Audacity to Win. At the outset, it wasn't clear that Obama's campaign would be anything other than a traditional exercise. As Plouffe writes early on

We raised $4 million online, a significant amount but far less than our fund-raisers wanted. Our new media team were very careful about how often we asked people for money by e-mail. We wanted our online contributors to have a balanced experience with us, thinking that if they felt part of and connected to the whole campaign, they might be more generous over time. The fund-raisers, who felt the pressure I was putting on them to post a big number, wanted to ask for as much as possible, as often as possible, starting right away. These were some of the tensest disputes I had to navigate throughout the whole campaign, and they left a lingering sore spot that did not heal for over a year. The finance team really believed that the new media team was underperforming financially, and the new media team thought the finance team viewed them and our supporters as an ATM.

Though it's ultimately clear where the campaign came down at the end of the day, Plouffe doesn't really evince bold conviction that the new media guys were right from day one. Here we see the traditional top-down playbook lingering on within the Obama campaign. Now, if Obama the community organizer started out running a fairly traditional campaign catering to the donor class, and in fact, ran a fairly textbook Senate campaign in 2004, what changed in the heat of the campaign? Plouffe doesn't seem to indicate that there was any altruistic, philosophical instinct to buck the finance team's approach, beyond a general sense that what the online people were doing seemed to be working. If there was a sudden epiphany by Axelrod or Plouffe to buy into bottom up, community organizing methods, it was probably a transactional, reflex response to the 20,000 person crowds, the e-mail signups, and the online fundraising. When you have a candidate like Obama, "letting go" and being bottom up is not simply a noble, unconventional, damn-the-consequences move. It's pretty darn profitable, generating more signups, more activity, and more money to feed the top-down parts of the campaign.

Now, what happens when the campaign goes away? What happens when the enthusiasm inevitably ebbs and the hard work of governing begins? The immediate benefits of a bottom-up strategy become less clear. You revert to traditional instincts, where powerful obstacles stand in the way of getting things done -- even amongst your base, and the wielding of massive political machinery cannot be left to amateurs. Either way, the decision to go "bottom up" is a traditional reflex response by smart people who realize they can get more done with bottom-up than with top-down in a campaign. And the reversion to "top-down" is a similarly calculated response to the fact that the financial and organizational benefits of bottom-up do not seem to apply to an Administration. Plouffe admitted this much in his interview with Ari Melber in defending the decision to downgrade New Media in the White House. Now, this may be wrong, short-sighted, or ignoble, but BOTH the bottom-up Obama campaign and the top-down Obama Administration were calculated strategic decisions made in response to specific situations of the moment. Let's not kid ourselves that the community organizing rhetoric was how they actually intended to govern.

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