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Weekly #6: Obama, You First

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I fell for Barack Obama on July 26, 2006. I was working as a congressional intern and had already seen Obama only weeks earlier as part of a speaker series put on for the interns. This much-hyped senator was a major attraction and he turned out the best numbers of any lawmaker that summer. I didn’t know much about him other than his star turn at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and his promotion of unity over partisan politics. That first time I saw him up close and personal, I found myself let down. He was close enough, yet anything but personal. He came prepped with a message in mind and delivered it steadily enough. But there was no enthusiasm, no spark. I can barely even remember what he spoke about. In fact, the most memorable part of the whole thing was the faux bomb threat that almost emptied the place (what kind of self-respecting college student carries around a red, reusable lunch bag?). At the close of the Q&A, I sat in the back wondering, “What’s the big deal about this guy anyway?”

Soon enough, I was given another opportunity to see Obama. He was scheduled to have a live discussion with the late, great Tim Russert as part of the Partnership for Public Service Annual Intern Event. The goal was to talk about the importance of public service and encourage me and my peers to opt in. I wasn’t excited to join a throng of 2,000 other DC interns for another lackluster speech, but I did like Russert, and who doesn’t want a few hours out of the office? And how bad could he really be in comparison to then President Bush’s remarks at the NRCC’s President’s Dinner? (Yes, I worked for a Republican and, yes, half of the dinner guests – excuse me, patrons – were straight from Texas, cowboy hats and boots and all). So on July 26, I made the trip to Warner Theatre, and what I saw and heard was undoubtedly one of the best discussions about modern politics and government service to date.

Obama was intelligent, articulate, candid and, most importantly, genuine. Russert himself was quite impressive, and it was fascinating to see him do a Meet the Press session live. He too was enamored with Obama, clearly enjoying honest answers instead of the packaged ones he was so used to from seasoned politicians. Obama was a fresh voice who was confident in his message: America and Americans could lead this new, globalized world if we got over politics as usual and came together to make the necessary changes. The entire dialogue hinted at the “first campaign” that Obama would kick off in less than a year’s time. He then took questions from the audience, and I saw peers take part in a conversation with the man that would become the most powerful person in the world within 28 months. Needless to say, I was hooked. Obama was asking me, a lowly 19-year-old with zero life experience, to step up and take part in the governance of our nation. I left feeling energized and empowered, and like I had just seen a glimpse of the future of American politics in the 21st century.

Obama’s campaign would reflect much of what I saw on that day. If you ask anyone on the street, they’ll tell you that Obama stood out because he positioned himself as the candidate of “hope” and “change.” But as Graff noted, then-Governor Tom Vilsack was already touting a “readiness to change” and “hope of tomorrow” message in the fall of 2006 (pg. 5). “Hope” and “change” were just cherry-picked buzzwords that provided shortcuts for conceptualizing the Obama campaign. Obama would not have been successful armed only with these concepts. Instead, he succeeded because his campaign took on the tone and character of Obama himself on that fine day in July. It was open, honest, and enthusiastically welcomed discussion and participation from those on the lowest level. In Clay Shirky speak, Obama’s campaign offered the following three things:

Plausible Promise: A new kind of campaign and a new kind of presidency, one that encouraged and invited participatory democracy. Obama promised to govern with the people instead of politics at the forefront of his mind, to make tough decisions that were necessary and right, and to make America great again in a globalized world.

Effective Tool: The internet and mobile technology, specifically social networks, blogs, text messages, microtargeted emails, personalized phone calls, webcasts, online videos, and a campaign website that brought it all together. His campaign even personalized the experience through MyBO accounts (myObama.com), taking all of the tools and platforms and putting them together in one simple account.

Acceptable Bargain: If you support Obama, give a little money, and volunteer on his behalf, you will help usher in a new era of politics where transparency is the rule, authentic conversations are the norm, and the voices of many are heard over the voices of the few and powerful. You will be part of the change you seek, you will make a concrete difference. All Obama asks in return is that you give and do what you can (tiered ladders of engagement), and he will make America and Americans great and right once more.

The primary maxim of the Cluetrain Manifesto, “Markets are conversations,” is about a movement towards openness. The Obama campaign embraced this openness. His staff took the tools best suited for open conversations (social media like MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc.) and made them the centerpiece of the campaign. They did more than that – they streamlined them, made them easy to use, and brought them under one roof with a crash-proof infrastructure. They met the millions of people that lived and played in these spaces, and used their raw energy to create a grassroots movement.

The Obama campaign was largely successful because as an nontraditional candidate, Obama recognized early on that he needed to use nontraditional means to build support. His campaign lowered the barrier to entry into presidential politics and made activism easier than ever before. It rejected public financing and put Obama’s success squarely in the hands of the people. It made a national election personal and local, encouraging house parties and providing neighborhood phone lists. The campaign also invested heavily in the layer of “super users” (from Mike’s class discussion on 9/22) that were able to manage various online communities as well as take the lead in offline events and volunteer efforts.

In short, Obama’s campaign was about the long tail. It wasn’t about the loudest few with the most money and power. It was about many groups and communities, most significantly ones that often went unheard in politics (e.g. the young and African Americans), each with their own set of primary concerns, each being empowered to join in the discussion and shape the future of our nation. As Cluetrain mentions, the internet allows conversations that simply were not possible in the era of mass media. The Obama campaign used the internet to foster authentic conversations that were not seen in short tail media outlets like MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News. Bloggers and Facebook commenters were just as important, if not more so, as Russert’s opinion on Meet the Press. In sum, the Obama campaign made good on the Cluetrain maxim, “We want you to take 50 million of us as seriously as you take one reporter from The Wall Street Journal” – and it made all the difference.


So what about now? Has Obama the President followed through on his promise? In a word, no.

Before I level my criticisms, know that I had no great hopes for Obama even as tears streaked my face on the night of November 4, 2008. I was overjoyed at the significance of the occasion, and grateful that a Republican wasn’t taking the reigns for four more years. But I knew the challenges ahead would not be easily overcome. I knew that despite his message of post-partisanship and effective governance by the people and for the people, he would be greatly tempted to play by the same old rules of the Beltway to get his agenda through. Perhaps because I had worked on the Hill or perhaps because I lived in DC, I knew the presidency would be far from a joyride for Obama.

That being said, it appears that Obama’s presidency, just like Beltway politics in general, has become about the short tail. The loudest, most powerful voices of the few are the key influencers when it comes to governance. As Graff noted, “Unfortunately, the American political system responds too often only to intense stimuli” (pg. 284). That includes both major events and major players. That is how Washington works. It is an old game after all, and to win you have to play by the old rules. But Obama promised something different. He promised to throw out the old rules and create new ones. He promised a new kind of presidency, where participatory governance was the norm, where those in the long tail were empowered to make a difference. Unfortunately, we have yet to see this.

Just look at the tools that made the long tail so prominent during the campaign. For instance, check out the White House Blog. There you will find links leading mainly to the White House website, to other government websites, or to messaging that clearly is packaged by the communications team. You will not find links to conversations taking place in the long tail. (Even sadder, you will find zero to few comments on Community Blogs posts on the Organizing for America site). Why don’t the White House bloggers point to discussions on social networking sites that support the President’s agenda and progress so far? Why not link to an article that attacks Obama and use the blog as a platform to address the concerns presented, point-by-point? Or why not link to a right wing blogger who is making claims about the administration based out of bias and anger, and set that blogger straight? After all, links subvert authority…oh right, Obama is the authority now. And he has laws to pass. And the mid-terms to win. And his own re-election to win. He can’t afford to piss off anyone with substantive conversation, least of all the major players. No wonder these types of links aren’t seen.

The thing is, the millions that fell in love with Obama did so because of the open, human, authentic conversations that he inspired and encouraged during the campaign. Now, although his messaging is still technically designed to be taken up and spread by others (as Edelman’s report suggests), it fails to spread because it is no longer part of an open, multi-directional dialogue. People aren’t inspired by one-way messaging and hollow appeals for $15 donations. As a result, the long tail grows quieter as the loud and few (Tea Party Republicans) grow louder. I would champion Obama even with his huge missteps (Gitmo and DADT) if he kept up his end of the bargain and at least tried for the same grassroots authenticity that defined his campaign.

In Graff’s book, he cites Ray Scheppach’s observation about what makes a successful governor (pg. 288). If you replace “governor” with “president,” you get the following: “To be great…a president needs to provide the moral leadership necessary to change the game.” Is it realistic to ask this of a sitting president in this day and age, especially with fast approaching mid-terms? If it was anyone else, no, probably not. Running a country is completely different than running a campaign. And when a young, nontraditional player comes in by bucking the system, you better believe that the system won’t go easy on him.

But this is the man who based everything on the promise to change the game and bring about a more effective, open, and morally right administration, which we still have yet to see. Obama has lost his compelling narrative, and in the words of Amy Gardner, “‘Jed Bartlet: Not quite as mean-spirited as the other guy.’ Doesn’t really send me running to my polling place.” And now Obama asks those of us in the long tail daily for a grassroots movement to save the Democratic Congress, after having largely ignored us for the past two years.

It takes two for a bargain to work, and I say, “Mr. President, you first.”


6 Responses

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  1. Tara,

    This is a super excellent blog post all around. Nice work. Here’s a question, though: Are you conflating the promise and the bargain? How are these two things different in a political campaign or are they?


    October 27, 2010 at 8:37 pm

    • I don’t think I am, but let me clarify:

      Obama promised “change,” which I believe was specific and detailed (see my post above). He promised to make America great again with moral leadership and with the people in mind, not special interests. And he promised that we would be integral to that change.

      The bargain is that we give the resources we can (again, tiered ladders of engagement) and get him the votes he needs (including our own) to put him in power and bring about the change we seek.

      I can see them becoming easily conflated in a campaign because you are reminded of the promise while simultaneously being asked to donate/host/volunteer/vote for the candidate. Each email that asked me to “Donate $25 now” was followed with something like “…be part of this unprecedented grassroots movement.”

      That blurring of promise/bargain is especially true for the Obama campaign since its ethos was similar to JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you” plea. The promise was about what Obama could do for us, and the bargain was framed so it was about what we could do for ourselves (through Obama, not for Obama). Through Obama, we could make this country great again.


      November 1, 2010 at 1:21 pm

  2. Hey like the post. Obama’s my boss now, I guess!
    Who’d ya intern for?


    November 12, 2010 at 12:03 am

  3. Unlike you I was never wowed by Obama. Yes I was all for the “change” but I never saw where he was going to be the one to make the difference. Being a little older than you I have come to grips with the whole “politics” game. It has always been nothing more than empty promises. Most politicians “game” is to talk the talk until they get what they want to achieve(winning election and to most gaining control). But once in office the only ones that seem to benefit by their gain are the ones that helped them achieve it.(the BIG money donors) Everyone else is right back where they started from still “looking” for that big change and hopeful for the promise……..


    November 22, 2010 at 7:16 pm

    • In general, I agree with you. But I think Obama ran on being different and shunning the game, and not because of a thirst for power or control. I believe he genuinely wanted to make our country great again and in a morally sound way.

      I suppose that is why I am disappointed. I didn’t think he would swoop in and make everything better all at once. I just wanted him to show moral fiber even in the harshest of circumstances.


      November 24, 2010 at 6:29 am

  4. He was mad today!


    December 7, 2010 at 9:27 pm

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