Whatever happened to the Obama ‘movement’?

The Obama for President campaign excited millions, enthused many first-time voters, and inspired youthful door-to-door campaigning. But it died on the day Obama was elected.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

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A little over a year ago, Barack Obama was elected president of the United States. It seems longer. Obama is bogged down with stubbornly high unemployment, stalled healthcare reform and accusations of dithering over Afghanistan. Last week his job-approval rating dropped below 50 per cent for the first time, according to Gallup (1).

How much easier things were when he was Candidate Obama rather than President Obama. A new book by his campaign manager, David Plouffe, takes us back to those days. The Audacity to Win reminds us how remarkable it was that a relative unknown like Obama made it all the way to the top. But in recalling the fervour that the Obama campaign generated, it also inadvertently highlights how that passion has dissipated over the past 12 months (2).

Fans of Obama who signed up online for ‘My BO’ will know Plouffe’s name, if only because of his incessant requests for money during the 2008 contest (when he wasn’t peddling Obama-Biden key chains). But even his political rivals would probably agree that the low-profile Plouffe (rhymes with ‘fluff’) should be recognised for his role, along with his partner David Axelrod, in masterminding one of the biggest upsets in American political history.

Plouffe’s book is not an elaboration of Obama’s message or policies; his references to Obama’s ideas are often shorthand platitudes. Nor is it a gossipy tell-all. Maybe the only news we learn about Obama is that he prefers watching ESPN sports highlights to preparation, and leaves his speech-writing to the last minute.

Instead, the book’s focus is on campaign strategy and organisation. It is a first-hand articulation of the game plan, and a behind-the-scenes look at how the campaign team dealt with the day-to-day challenges thrown at them. Even though we know the outcome, it is a fascinating read.

At the outset, Plouffe and Axelrod recognised that Hillary Clinton was ‘an enormously strong frontrunner’ for the Democratic Party nomination: ‘She was the eight-hundred-pound gorilla, with organisations in every state, 100 per cent name recognition, and a fundraising machine ready to be switched on at a moment’s notice. We had none of this. Nothing, nada, zilch.’ To knock the tag of inevitability off Clinton, the Obama campaign decided to throw everything into winning the first contest, in Iowa. If they could manage that upset, they would hope to hold their own through the multiple ‘Super Tuesday’ primaries, and then try to outlast Clinton. As we know, they succeeded: the Clinton campaign thought it would lock up the contest by Super Tuesday, and were shockingly unprepared to fight after that.

To win in Iowa (and beyond), the Obama campaign leaders believed that they could not rely on converting traditional voters, but instead needed to increase turnout; as Plouffe puts it, ‘to grow the share of the electorate we believed would be most supportive of Obama’ – younger people, minorities, independents, Republicans. In particular, the Obama campaign – unlike the Clinton campaign – understood the critical difference between caucuses (where people attend in person and discuss for a length of time before publicly declaring their support for a candidate) and primaries (where people use traditional voting booths). They knew that, since fewer attend the more-demanding caucuses, if they could obtain energetic support they could overwhelm them (which is what happened in Iowa and elsewhere).

And to win the game, you need to master its rules. Plouffe was a whizz at understanding the arcane delegate math, and he expresses surprise at how the Clintonites didn’t get it. For example, when Hillary won a big state like New Jersey, she and her team crowed about victory, even though, given proportional allocation, she netted only a few more delegates than Obama. Meanwhile, Obama could pour resources into a small state like Idaho, win by a landslide in the caucus and pick up nearly all the delegates, more than Hillary netted in a big state.

It is interesting how Plouffe and other campaign leaders thought from the beginning that the main obstacle to the White House was the Clinton ‘mountain’. Once that was overcome, they were relatively confident that they could take on any Republican, given the electorate’s dissatisfaction with George W Bush and the disarray of the party generally. And in the event, the contest versus John McCain was indeed easier than the bruising battle with Hillary.

Of course, it was not enough for the campaign to have a compelling candidate and a correct strategy; they needed to execute to make it happen. Plouffe tells the story of how he and his team built an operational infrastructure. In the event, they broke records for fundraising ($750million, including much from small-dollar donors), took the unconventional route of spending that money on a door-to-door ‘ground game’ instead of media spending, created an army of volunteers, and creatively used the internet to cohere supporters and raise money. And, as their political opponents admit, the Obama campaign exhibited few signs of infighting.

The campaign also managed to roll with the punches thrown at them: Jeremiah Wright, ‘bittergate’, Sarah Palin, Bill Ayres, to name a few. Plouffe admits they didn’t know about Wright’s inflammatory sermons, and calls it the ‘most severe test we faced’. He credits Obama for upping the stakes in response: instead of playing it down and hoping it would go away, he gave a much-praised speech about race, which effectively squelched the issue. The campaign also took advantage of their opponents’ mistakes. For instance, they leapt on McCain’s ‘the fundamentals of our economy are sound’, and did not budge for McCain’s stunt of calling for a suspension of the campaign to help with crisis legislation in Washington.

Plouffe and his colleagues certainly deserve credit for running a brilliant campaign. I do think he overstates Hillary’s initial strength and advantage. She may have had the Democratic Party’s hierarchy’s support, but that proved to be more of an empty shell. And Obama had more support from the party’s wealthy backers than Plouffe lets on: in Obama’s first three months of campaigning, in the first quarter of 2007 (nine months before Iowa), he raised more primary funds than Hillary – and these were mainly from big donors, not the small ones that came more into play later on. Nevertheless, the campaign had to overcome many hurdles and was an unexpected success.

Plouffe and his team also deserve credit for a establishing a campaign that was able to generate active support, especially among young people. It is quite something that they would seek to base their strategy on increasing first-time voters and overall turnout at the polls, given the long-term trend towards voter apathy and declining numbers.

But it is wrong to say, as the book’s blurb proclaims, that Plouffe ‘built a grassroots movement that changed the face of politics forever’. Time and again in his book, Plouffe refers to the creation of a ‘movement’, a force that would outlast the election. Indeed, Plouffe helped found Organizing for America (OFA), which is intended to be a continuation of the ‘Obama for America’ election campaign.

But Plouffe’s book is published at a time when it is clear that the election-time enthusiasm and activism is no longer there. This lack of dynamism is in stark contrast to the excitement of a year ago.

OFA has an email list of 13million people, but is rarely heard from and it is not a force on the ground. The organisation says it generated 300,000 calls to Congress representatives to support the president’s healthcare plans, but they are hardly a factor in the proceedings. The ones making the noise are on the right, the so-called ‘tea party’ protests and hecklers at townhall meetings. In a recent interview, Plouffe says that grassroots support for Obama continues, but ‘it’s just being done more quietly than what the tea-bagger people are doing’ (3). Such ‘quiet campaigning’ is hardly convincing.

In an article in the New Republic, Lydia DePillis called the OFA ‘an internet version of the top-down political machines built by Richard Daley or Boss Tweed in New York’. Unlike other liberal groups, the OFA would not run hard-hitting ads on health for fear of alienating Democrats who don’t share the president’s approach, like Montana Senator Max Baucus, who Obama wants to do a deal with (4). Indeed, support for Obama has arguably had a disabling effect on liberal politics, as many people are disinclined to oppose him. For instance, it took the conservative writer, Byron York, to (correctly) point out that ‘for many liberal activists, opposing the war was really about opposing George W Bush. When Bush disappeared, so did their anti-war passion.’ (5)

Even at its height during the campaign, support for Obama never represented a political or social movement. True, he was able to sign up volunteers and attract thousands to his rock-star rallies. But the Obama campaign was a ‘movement’ with a very narrow objective: to get this one man into the White House. This ‘movement’ was finished on 4 November 2008, when its sole objective was achieved.

Many were attracted to the ideals that Obama espoused, drawing upon the American experience. He was inspirational, almost like a preacher, with his chants of ‘fired up, ready to go’ and ‘yes we can’. But his call for ‘change’ did not demand much of his supporters. Plouffe is proud that the campaign had a consistent message: ‘change’. But this notion of change was kept vague. Supporters were therefore not signing up for a specific way forward, but instead a simple rejection of the past.

And it is clear now that much of the support was based on the man himself. With all the focus on Obama the person, no one seemed to want to talk about the broader political forces. For instance, as today’s debate over healthcare reform shows, Congress is a major player in American politics. This seems a basic fact, American Politics 101, but you hardly heard a peep about Congress during all the excitement about Obama last year.

It is also striking how the Obama campaign was really about Obama himself and not the Democratic Party. After the election, Plouffe noted in an interview that ‘the party apparatus was less important’, but that is a gross understatement – the campaign ran in the other direction from the party (6). As Plouffe highlights in his book, time and again the Obama campaign avoided party fundraising events and rejected offers of assistance from local party and other traditional party-related interest-group leaders, preferring instead to appeal to voters directly. Consequently, Obama’s victory was not a victory for the Democratic Party itself. Democrats lost many prominent races in this year’s November elections (such as the governors’ races in New Jersey and Virginia), showing how the ‘Obama brand’ does not extend to fellow Democrats.

After the election, Plouffe rejected an offer to work in the administration, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family (in fact, my jaw dropped when I learned in the book that he threatened to quit after the primary victory over Clinton, citing the gruelling pace and the desire to be with his family). Today, the grassroots support that Obama generated has similarly seemed exhausted and in need of a break. Reinvigorating politics will require, among other things, understanding the limitations of the Obama campaign.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York.

The Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama’s Historic Victory, by David Plouffe, is published by Viking Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

(1) Obama job approval down to 49%, Gallup

(2) For an evocative rendition of the Obama campaign’s spirit, see the Home Box Office documentary, By the People.

(3) ‘Inside Obama’s campaign’, by Aaron Rutkoff, Wall Street Journal, 4 November 2009. Here Plouffe uses the sexually derogatory ‘tea-bagger’, which has become standard liberal language.

(4) ‘Disorganized’, by Lydia DePillis, New Republic, 29 October 2009

(5) ‘For the Left, war without Bush is not war at all’, by Byron York, Washington Examiner, 18 August 2009

(6) ‘World according to… David Plouffe’, by Lloyd Grove, Portfolio.com, 11 December 2008

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