Myths And Reality: The Obama Campaign Vs. The Obama Presidency
Here’s an absolutely fascinating article by Micah Sifry in which he takes a detailed look at the myth and reality of the Obama campaign. As you might imagine the myth doesn’t live up to the reality.
What was the myth? That the campaign was a bottom-up, grassroots driven organization. Instead says Sifry, it was the 21st Century version of a top-down campaign (whereas the McCain campaign was the last version of the old 20th Century top-down campaign).
That’s not to say the campaign wasn’t managed brilliantly – the email list they built was over 13 million. However the myth they delivered was that A) the grassroots would have a seat at the table and B) they were electing a “different kind” of politician. In reality, neither of those promises has materialized. And it is that which has so disillusioned and frustrated many Obama supporters. They bought into the myth lovingly nurtured by a supportive media apparently as easily gulled as the public. For instance:
From Fast Company’s March 2009 cover story on Chris Hughes, the Facebook cofounder who led the development of Obama’s online community My.Barackobama.com (or “MyBO”): -“The theme of the campaign, direct from Obama, was that the people were the organization.” -“Trusting a community can produce dramatic and unexpected results.”
From National Journal’s April 2009 profile of Joe Rospars, the Obama campaign’s new media director: -“It was going to be something organic. It was going to be bottom-up,” Joe Rospars said.
From Rolling Stone’s March 2008 “The Machinery of Hope” story on the Obama campaign: -“Obama didn’t just take their money,” says Donna Brazile, Al Gore’s campaign manager in 2000. “He gave them seats at the table and allowed them to become players.”
All are examples of the cheerleading and water carrying that was rampant in the press at the time of the campaign. And, for the most part, they uncritically helped develop the myth and enabled the campaign to push it much further than it should ever have been able to do on its own.
However, since January 20th – day 1 of “reality” – those grassroots supporters have not seen a “new” type of politician nor have they found themselves sitting at the table. Instead, an new organization (Organizing For America or OFA) has been formed around the old 13 million strong mailing list and seems to have the dual purpose of cheerleading for the administration and raising money. However, that’s not going as well as they’d like:
The returns OFA 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.”
That’s reality. As Sifry points out:
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 question is, without the same enthusiasm as he was able to generate in 2008 in which Obama managed to turn out many first time voters, independents and young voters, can he win again in 2012 if the Republicans can find a viable and attractive candidate? Or perhaps the better question is, has he alienated enough of the marginal voters who gave him a win to ensure a good Republican candidate has a real chance in 2012, given the power of incumbency and all?
I think the answer, with those caveats, is yes. Obama was indeed a transitional candidate – the first black president and the first president elected based in a myth loosely contained in his “Hope and Change” motto. The electorate has now digested and marked “first black president” off the list. It doesn’t have the power it once had. Americans have proven they can overcome race in electing someone to the highest office in the land. However, the realization that his candidacy was based in this myth and they were gulled into believing the myth certainly won’t sit well with those marginal voters I spoke about – and that enthusiasm gap could become an enthusiasm chasm by 2012 (it’s why you’re beginning to see blog posts like this on the left).
Make sure you read the whole thing. There are many more aspects of the campaign covered by Sifry. For instance, how, in fact, it was a campaign immersed in “big money” from the usual suspects (something we pointed out repeatedly here at QandO) and what that meant in reality. It is a great analysis of a brilliant campaign which has had one major failing – it hasn’t been able to transition its promises into the reality of governing. Sifry seems to wonder if that was ever the plan to begin with. Regardless, that failing is not unique to this particular campaign – few are able to do that – however the difference between the promises and the perception they created vs. the reality of this presidency are probably unique in the magnitude of that failure, the frustration it has generated and the possible electoral results that frustration will bring if it isn’t addressed successfully. I, for one, don’t see how that can again be done, even with a compliant press (something I think we’re likely to see less of in the next few years, btw).