I've always thought that the idea of Obama as grassroots champion was more myth than reality, especially after reporting on how his campaign treated one genuine grassroots activist, Joe Anthony, who had spent more than two years of his life nurturing a page on MySpace dedicated to Obama, well before there was any campaign, only to have it stripped out of his control when it became a valuable campaign asset. But I also thought this was a useful myth because it generated rising expectations both here and abroad, not only in what Obama might do if elected president, but also in what anyone might do today using their greatly enhanced powers to communicate and collaborate around common causes. (In case you haven't noticed by now, I tend to be pretty skeptical of all politicians, and far more interested in small-d democratic self-empowerment as the best path to a better society.) The problem for Obama and the Democrats today, as they head into 2010, is that much of their activist base appears to have swallowed too much of the wrong half of the myth: they thought that Obama would be more of a change-agent, and never really embraced their own role. [my emphasis]
But, to use terms from another political era, there is also an important and critical relationship between leadership and the "masses" in a political party. American political parties, like the government, are structured to be representative institutions, in which the voters select leaders and officeholders to carry out the programs they want to see carried out. The Party base has to insist on the policies it wants. But for that to be effective we also have to have people in leadership roles who are willing to lead in the same direction.
Sifry looks at two of the recent books on the Obama campaign, The Audacity to Win by David Plouffe, who was Obama's campaign manager, and Electing the President 2008: The Insiders' View, edited by Kathleen Hall Jamieson. He draws some lessons from them about the change in approach to the Party base during the campaign and afterwards.
Democratic voters and activists have to go on the assumption right now that a corporate Democrat like Obama can be persuaded to act like a progressive, at least on some major issues. But throughout 2009, he was more interested in de-activating the base than in fighting for its goals.
Sifry's analysis reinforces the strong negative impression I got from hearing Valerie Jarrett speaking as the White House's representative at the Netroots Nation convention in 2009 in Pittburgh. It struck me that her attitude was that of a Party chieftain giving instructions to low-level functionaries on what they should be saying to support the White House line of the day. The Obama administration is happy to have pressure applied by insurance lobbyists against the public option in health care reform. Pressure from the grass roots supporting the positions on which he campaigned? Not so much. Sifry writes:
In The Audacity to Win, Plouffe writes often of an "enthusiasm gap" that he saw between Obama's supporters and the other Democratic candidates, notably Clinton. Back then, there was plenty of evidence to support Plouffe's claim: Obama was surging on all the online social networks, his videos were being shared and viewed in huge numbers, and the buzz was everywhere. We certainly wrote about it often here on techPresident. Now, there is a new enthusiasm gap, but it's no longer in Obama's favor. That's because you can't order volunteers to do anything--you have to motivate them, and Obama's compromises to almost every powers-that-be are tremendously demotivating. The returns OFA [Organizing for America, Obama's Potemkin netroots organization] is getting on email blasts appear to be dropping significantly, for example. "“People are frustrated because we have done our part,” one frustrated Florida Obama activist told the Politico. “We put these people in the position to make change and they’re not doing it.” (See also this petition from 400 former Obama staffers.) DC insiders may blame the fickle media, or the ugliness of the cable/blog chatter, or the singleminded Republican opposition, for the new enthusiasm gap. These are all certainly factors. But I suspect that when the full history of Obama's presidency is written, scholars may decide that his team's failure to devote more attention to reinventing the bully pulpit in the digital age, and to carrying over more of the campaign's grassroots energy, may turn out to be pivotal to evaluations of Obama's success, or failure, as president. [my emphasis]
But to succeed as a corporate Democrat, Obama has to keep the Democratic base as deactivated as possible except when it comes to performing unpaid election tasks for the Party. Ploffle makes this explicit:
Now that Obama is President, Plouffe--a well-paid adviser to the DNC and OFA-- apparently doesn't see the same need as he did during the campaign for muscular local organization, even of the top-down kind. In his 40-minute interview with Ari Melber of The Nation (and regular techPresident contributor) a few weeks ago, he explains that the White House doesn't need to be putting its new media operation on the same high level that the campaign did. "In the White House, obviously you're not really raising money and you're not really doing organizing," he says to Melber. (Really?) "The main focus is to help deliver message." Hence the new media team belongs as a subset of White House communications, as opposed to "digital strategy." The dusty old playbook at work. [my emphasis]
The dusty old playbook is delivering the goods to Wall Street investment banking chiefs and to the health insurance monopolies. But it's not what most of the people need. And I hope the pressure from labor and progessives will be enough to put the Party, with Obama at its head, on a more constructive track. And fast.