In the wake of Barack Obama’s election, there was considerable discussion about how “the movement” that supported him would continue on following the election. In a video message in January, Obama said that his supporters “built the largest grass roots movement in history” and that it was important to continue to grow the movement into his presidency.
The campaign transitioned its network–a staggering 13 million email addresses and two million active volunteers–into a new entity, Organizing for America. The organization is now housed within the Democratic National Committee and has an open communications channel with the White House. According to various media reports, it will be used primarily to build public support for legislation and to pass that legislation. Obama’s administration has said that it will not be used to pressure members of Congress.
With the Passage of the Stimulus, an Opportunity to Reflect
The Congressional fight over the stimulus package–trumpeted by Barack Obama–offers an opportunity to reflect on how Organizing for America functioned and how it will likely function in the future. Aside from the continuation of its social networking functions and blog postings updating supporters on what the Obama administration has done thus far (all of which are favorable to the administration), the stimulus package debate was the organization’s first organizing effort.
Organizing for America essentially worked to establish public support for Obama’s stimulus package. Supporters were encouraged to host a meeting about the package, which the group described as Obama and Congress’ “plan to put nearly four million Americans back to work.” Supporters could ask questions that might be answered in a video in support of the plan featuring Governor and DNC Chair Tom Kaine. Organizing for America also publicized “talking points” in support of “President Obama’s Economic Stimulus Plan” and circulated a state-by-state analysis of the plan. The group tapped into Obama’s campaign network, sending at least four emails asking supporters to help build support for the legislation. All of the efforts were aimed at building support for “Obama’s plan” not promoting a back-and-forth interaction between supporters and the President. Nor did they discuss intricate details of the package.
While both legislative bodies eventually passed the legislation, it passed without the bi-partisan support that Obama sought.
Not a Movement in the Traditional Sense
Looking at how Organizing for America campaigned for the stimulus package, it is clear that Organizing for America is does not function as “a movement” in the traditional sense. In the tradition of community organizing, one typically thinks of a movement using bottom-up, grassroots structures. For example, you might picture residents of a town banding together to campaign for the removal of a police officer with a violent history of unjustifiable targeting people of color. As a part of this effort, they might target a civilian police review board, the mayor, or a city council to achieve their goal. Another example would be a group campaigning to get a city government to divest funds from an investment company that funds destructive coal mining practices. In both of the aforementioned examples, the key is that the movement–the residents making the demands–has decided together to make demands for change on officials who have the power to make the change they are seeking.
However, in organizing around the stimulus package, Organizing for America has not featured this bottom-up, citizen-driven organizing. Instead, the goals and work have been dictated from the top. The group asked people only to work to get Obama’s legislation passed, not to shape the actual legislation. While this was discussed above, a specific example is the meetings that Organizing for America called for around the stimulus bill. Supporters were asked to host “house meetings” to discuss Obama’s plan and the economic crisis in their communities:
“That’s why supporters are opening their homes to talk with neighbors and friends about how the plan will work — and what it means for their community.
The video will outline the basics of the plan and how it will impact working families. It will also include answers to questions from folks across the country. Invite your friends and family to watch the video, discuss the plan, and help build support for it.”
However, they were not asked to come up with their own solutions to the problems, instead they were asked to simply drum up support for Obama’s plan. Supporters were not to be used to generate the actual legislation; instead, they were simply seen as a pressure group to ensure its passage.
A Disappointing Step
Unfortunately, this removed the kind of grassroots discussion and bottom up organizing that characterizes “movements.” It is also a step away from the “movements” that we traditionally think of and is a step away from the notion of people-powered politics.
Although I’ll be the first to admit that I was quite skeptical of the idea of Obama’s campaign as a movement (it seemed more like just a more efficient way to win electoral campaigns and to make people feel empowered through that process that borrowed from community organizing techniques), Organizing for America’s work on the stimulus package was a step back from previous efforts. Most notably, the Change.gov project–with its method of soliciting feedback from supporters and asking them what they thought their priorities should be–reflected a more “bottom up” approach to the presidency (although simply inviting feedback is still a long way from being responsive to that feedback). Similarly, the MyBarackObama encouraged more networking and dialog–at least between supporters and campaign staffers–than the effort to pass the stimulus bill.
Organizing for America has said that it is a new and untested model and that mistakes are bound to be made. However, if its work on the stimulus package is an indicator of its future work–it will be a rather disappointing entity.