Dismantling Change

Tarleton and Hector generously invited me to contribute to Culture Digitally, and I am thrilled to be here.  I wanted to share and invite feedback on an in-progress work that grows out of my forthcoming book, which tells the history of Democratic online campaigning from Howard Dean’s run to the 2008 Barack Obama campaign.

At the end of interviews conducted for the book, I let the tape recorder roll as study participants (individuals who worked in new media on presidential campaigns from 2000-2008) often speculated on what happened in the months and years after Obama became the president-elect.  When Obama stood in Grant Park, of course, there was incredible promise for his future administration.  What I want to focus on here is what happened to those who were mobilized behind the campaign.

At the time, many believed that the tools that powered Obama’s run, and the candidate’s approach to using them, would change politics forever.  Some saw the potential for a newly participatory polity and robust representation through the ability of social media to bring the president-elect closer to ordinary Americans.  For example, Micah Sifry declared that “before our eyes, we are witnessing the rebooting of the American political system” as he watched the launch of Change.gov, the website of the Obama-Biden transition.  Others speculated on the potential of  “Obama’s vast online army”  as a blunt legislative tool to pressure centrist Democrats and recalcitrant Republicans into acceding to his far reaching agenda of reforming health care and ending the Bush tax cuts and Iraq War.

It was hard not to imagine that some fundamental transformation was underway.  The 2008 campaign built a 13 million people email list, had nearly 2 million supporters with active accounts on the campaign’s online electoral platform, and raised hundreds of millions of dollars online.  There seemed to be enormous potential for transforming this electoral campaign into a standing legislative movement.

And yet, less than a year after Obama took office, many of these same authors watched this online army  “creak into action” to help implement the president’s agenda.  By the 2010 midterms, it was largely missing in action, along with what some suggested was the Party’s  emphasis on the grassroots.

What happened to the energy around the Obama campaign? This is a question that numerous former campaign staffers, many a part of the transition, asked and reflected on in interviews.  Others did so more publicly, asking where the mobilization that new media staffers helped sustain, support, and grow during nearly two years of campaigning went?

Based on interviews with key staffers on the campaign and in the transition, in this and subsequent posts I wanted to speculate on a number of interrelated institutional, organizational, political, and cultural factors behind the dissipation of the mobilization behind the campaign and its absence in legislative affairs (which Ari Berman has done a wonderful job detailing.)  I start here with the institutional and organizational challenges faced by Organizing For America (OFA) and the Party.

During the closing months of 2008, a number of former campaign staffers were enlisted to transition Obama for America into Organizing for America.  The initial planning around Change.gov as part of the overall transition began taking place in October, when aides became increasingly confident that Obama would win the general election.  During this time, Obama’s senior leadership debated what to do with the vast email list and database that the campaign had built over the course of the election.  These staffers ultimately decided that Obama for America would be reconstituted as an autonomous organization called Organizing for America housed within the Democratic Party.

A central reason behind housing Organizing for America within the Democratic Party was the clear legal and financial advantages this institutional arrangement offered.  OFA and the Party were set up to have separate branding with separate websites and lists, in part because staffers wanted to ensure that there was a space for Democrats who were not enthusiastic backers of President Obama.  This meant that at the backend, OFA and the Party maintain two separate lists of supporters, with OFA housing all the legacy data from the campaign, including all supporter information.  At the same time, the two organizations could legally coordinate their efforts.  And, fashioning OFA into an arm of the Party – as opposed to an Obama Political Action Committee – meant that supporters could legally donate up to $30,800 a year.  The alternative, discussed by staffers, of having OFA serve as a stand-alone reelection-focused organization would have placed severe restrictions on Obama’s ability to raise funds given that all donations would count towards the 2012 primary campaign (with individual facing a $2,000 limit).

Based on my interviews, it does not appear that Obama’s senior leadership ever seriously considered fashioning OFA into an independent organization.  For one, as my colleague David Karpf has argued, this would have meant giving up the control Obama and his Party had over the organization and placed it in the hands of an independent third party, such as a group of volunteer leaders from his campaign.  A stand-alone organization would in all likelihood have challenged the decisions of the President, senior Democratic congressional leaders, or local party structures. To avoid this, OFA essentially became the Democratic Party, despite the quite deliberate separate branding.

As a consequence, however, OFA alienated the very supporters who were most engaged and active around Obama’s candidacy.  OFA tried to avoid this, at least initially, convening over 5,000 national house parties and building applications such as Change.gov to solicit feedback about the policy agenda of the new president.  However, as was clear around intra-party fight over the direction of health care reform and the Party’s decision to back conservative Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas for reelection in 2010, other organizations captured much of the progressive energy that had once been mobilized for Obama.  OFA was relegated to urging the Obama campaign’s supporter base to engage in activities such as thanking those already on board with the president’s agenda for their support, not taking the fight to conservative Democrats and Republicans.

The lesson here is that institutional and organizational contexts are key to understanding the dynamics of mobilization and power (or lack thereof) of new media tools.  Without the mobilizing energy of Obama on the ballot in a presidential race, the same tools that powered the campaign lacked much force in the midterm elections.  The issues that supporters were engaged in, such as the public option and challenging conservative Democrats, were not on the table for OFA to mobilize Obama’s most active volunteers around.  With these institutional and organizational constraints on OFA, supporters simply disengaged and went elsewhere.

As Rasmus Nielsen pointed out: “social media are social first, and tools next. They help people pursue their interest in getting engaged in something, whether that is gossip or politics, but they will disengage when they no longer care—and the people who were willing to get engaged in supporting Obama, and found ways to do so because his campaign engaged them through old-school organizing and clever use of social media, probably weren’t all that interested in supporting Lincoln and [Arlen] Specter, so they stayed home, or backed the other candidate. To make social media work in politics, in short, people have to care.”

In my next post, I will talk about cycles of mobilization, the dynamics of charismatic leadership, as well as shifts in the rhetorical style of the new president once he took office.

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