Dismantling Change, Continued

In a previous post, I wrote about the organizational and institutional dynamics that shaped what happened to Obama’s “online army” in the years after the 2008 election.  I follow up on that post here, presenting in-progress work that addresses the transition from online campaigning to governance.

A number of Obama’s former staffers whom I interviewed about the campaign stated that they were exhausted from the election season.  A number who went on to work for Organizing for America (OFA) took some time after the election off.  Many cited how they used this time to think deeply about how to translate the online energy around Obama’s campaign into efforts to further the new president’s legislative agenda.  As one former campaign staffer who played a role in OFA describes:

“It was a hard problem, something that I spent the entire transition thinking about and talking to people about and trying to understand. One of the things that was fundamentally different about new media and the campaign and new media and the administration was that, at least from my perspective, new media in the campaign had very clear conversion goals, very clear goals for our operations: it was get people to sign up for e-mail, get people to donate, get people to register to vote, get people to volunteer, and at the end of the day get people to vote and so all of those things were very clear, very measurable, very concrete objectives.  In the transition and the administration the challenge was to figure out what it is actually we are trying to do here. What is the goal of the entire new media operation?…. I think it is hard to answer that question because it is not as clear as it was in the campaign and that shift at least from a data-driven, decision-making point of view is very difficult to make because without a clear goal it is hard to know how to prioritize, it is hard to know how to allocate resources….The best I could come up with during the transition was my recommendations for the administration to think about it in terms of…..how do we get actual people to take active participation in their government? That is really where the challenge lay and still to this day it is a hard problem.”

This former staffer reveals how the campaign had very clear goals for electoral success.  And, the campaign created the organizational structures, routines, and data practices to pursue, as well as metrics to track progress towards, these goals.  These are practices that I refer to in the book as “computational management,” or the delegation of managerial, allocative, messaging, and design decisions to analysis of user actions made visible in the form of data as they interacted with the campaign’s media.

What those involved in the transition and Organizing for America lacked were goals and metrics for supporter participation in advancing Obama’s legislative agenda.  The goals for governance and the policy making process are more obtuse and less measurable, the targets of contentious action more diffuse, the politics more complicated, the actors in the policy making process more heterogeneous, and the process lacks defined time frames and end points.  The task was only made more challenging in light of the organizational dynamics between OFA and the Democratic Party that I detailed earlier (with supporters lacking the ability to use the fledgling organization to mobilize behind candidates and causes they were be passionate about given internal Party dynamics).

As a consequence of this uncertainty, a number of former staffers cited how, in the words of one individual, “there was no real focus [to OFA] until after the inauguration.”  Even more, a number of former staffers cited significant miscues, such as using the email list for updates on the Obama family’s new dog.  Others describe a complicated relationship between the White House and OFA.  It seemed to some that OFA was an afterthought for the White House, especially given the internal Party dynamics, and the organization was not empowered to act alone.  As a result, there were qualitatively different kinds of participatory opportunities for the supporters of OFA, in the first year mostly around health care reform.  As a result of these dynamics, Ari Melber has shown that while OFA mobilized significant numbers for “governance organizing” in its first year, the organization could not match the energy around the campaign.

The gap in mobilization revealed itself in the counter-mobilization that is part of the dialectic of contentious politics.  With the perceived threat of the Obama presidency, particularly from the perceived expansion of state power, the Tea Party  engaged in significant counter-mobilization oriented around opposition to health care reform and the midterm elections of 2010.  The energy of conservative activists taking to the streets helped frame the meaning of the 2010 midterm elections and contributed to electoral enthusiasm.  OFA was largely a non-factor and Democrats underperformed in the election, even relative to the normal political phenomenon of the president’s party losing seats.

This counter-mobilization, in turn, gets at another important dynamic of Obama’s presidency.  In a highly insightful article written soon after the 2008 elections, Karin Knorr Cetina identified a key dynamic that has played out after the inauguration of the new president and helps explain a revitalized conservative movement and brutally effective Republican opposition to Obama’s policies and the Democratic Senate in the years after the midterms.  Interpreting Obama’s appeal during the campaign as that of a charismatic leader, Knorr Cetina anticipates what has become a central dynamic of the last two years:

“But would someone’s charisma seduce interest groups (the pharmaceutical industry, health insurance companies, Wall Street) to renounce their interests or prompt, for example, someone like Putin, or an organization like Hamas, or the EU – to ‘Change!’? Entrenched institutions and competing leaders, charisma theory predicts, will not simply recognize charisma, they will put it to a trial of strength, and fight.”

This trial of strength has defined the Obama presidency, with the first term president tested by an opposition willing to utilize all of the institutional tactics it has at its disposal to achieve policy aims.  Meanwhile, as a number of individuals formerly affiliated with the campaign have argued , once Obama took office the values-based rhetoric and explicitly moral appeals of the candidate changed drastically.  Obama ceased acting like a charismatic leader or the head of a social movement and assumed the posture of a governor.  This disenchanted those former supporters who bought into the social movement style of the campaign (even when it really always functioned as an electoral campaign, as that metrics-based discussion above makes clear.)  This style infused the campaign with energy, but governance required (in the minds of Obama and his advisors) different types of leaders, organizations, and institutions. As a consequence, mobilization was no longer tied to the man and the idea of the campaign, but to disenchanted party politics and pragmatic governance.  Again, Knorr Cetina anticipated this when channelling Weber she reminded us that: “The charisma-attributing population will experience a disappointment or else must accept a correction of its transcendent and transformative desires.”  Which alternative will prevail in 2012 remains to be seen.