How "Grassroots" Is Obama's Organizing for America?
Why did President Obama see fit to mention in an email to supporters last week that it was his daughter Malia's birthday? Perhaps because it fits in nicely with the (apparent) White House mobilizing strategy: make the 13-million or so recipients feel like they have a bit of personal intimacy, proximity to power and a voice in decision-making even if the reality says otherwise.
The email came from Organizing for America, the successor organization to the President's campaign group Obama for America. O.F.A. was set up to capitalize on the tremendous asset acquired during the campaign - 13 million email addresses. The hope was to keep these supporters energized in support of policy priorities once Mr. Obama took office.
Power brokers on the cutting edge are adept at creating novel alternative structures and new venues to press their agenda - and O.F.A. seems to be a case in point. They are also skilled at cultivating an image and message - an art that, when enabled with the latest technology, has become increasingly sophisticated and insidious in the era of the shadow elite.
Shadow Elite is the title of Janine's book, and in it she examines the modus operandi of a new breed of influencer that's emerged over the past few decades. Branding the message is a key part of that modus operandi for the most successful and agile power broker. And for O.F.A., that image is all about grassroots participation.
Aside from seeking action on specific political battles, notably health care, O.F.A. has also encouraged supporters to host house parties, perform public service, and engage in other social events that don't directly relate to a policy fight. The rosy take on this is that O.F.A. is empowering the grassroots, by helping to create a sense of civic-minded community. A more clear-eyed view is that O.F.A. is trying to keep its army engaged and ready to assist in what really matters - the President's agenda - and also to fight the lethargy that sets in between elections, which was even more inevitable given the outsized expectations invested in Obama.
O.F.A. also holds online strategy sessions, offering supporters the chance to "join the discussion," "interact," and "ask questions." But amid the rhetoric of "yes we can", the "we" in control of O.F.A., according to reports, is a very small, select group. A mid-level source who left O.F.A. told Janine that decisions come squarely from the top down, while the organization tries to maintain the illusion of participation. Another report quotes an activist complaining about "often secretive debate ... among top campaign staff members" The Washington Post also noted that "Obama ....is working to ensure [O.F.A.] stays within the control of a small group who are charged with protecting the Obama brand."
Legendary organizer Marshall Ganz gave his view of O.F.A. to the New Republic: "It's much more an instrument of mobilizing the bottom to serve the top than organizing the bottom to participate in shaping the direction of the top." The magazine also had this from techPresident.com editor Micah Sifry, who said Obama supporters "were basically asked to wait, that someone else was going to decide what was going to happen, and, in the meantime, please buy this mug."
Some disillusioned supporters agree with this assessment, including several Huff Post commenters to last week's Shadow Elite column (who were outnumbered, we should note, by still-committed and passionate O.F.A. supporters.) The Nation's Ari Melber wrote a 70 plus-page report on O.F.A.'s first year, and quotes one former volunteer:
Going through OFA showed me that they're using these same insider tactics that political machines have used forever...I was part of this machine to enact the White House political directives; I didn't have influence on those political directives; there was no reciprocal relationship...
New Republic reporter Lydia DePillis also mentions that "machine" theme:
Obama's people ha[ve] created something both entirely new and entirely old: an Internet version of the top-down political machines...the difference (other than technology) was that this new machine would rely on ideological loyalty, not patronage.
We would add that O.F.A. seems to us more new than old. While it's not the first political movement to capitalize on the internet (Howard Dean being the stand-out early adopter), it seems to be the first time a sitting leader has utilized a direct email communication line with the people he leads.
O.F.A. also tries to cement its support with a feeling of false intimacy - made possible through those internet, email and social networking technologies. Melber has this telling comment from one supporter: "Seriously, I feel that OFA's main objective is to facilitate and maintain pseudopersonal relationships with supporters in order to exploit them....I think it's called relationship marketing."
If that's the case, the marketing department should take note: Linda (and surely many others) received personal Thanksgiving wishes last year from "Barack Obama," addressed to ...."First Name, Last Name."