David W. Brown, a lawyer and former professor at Yale and the New School, is most recently the author of “The Real Change-Makers: Why Government Is Not the Problem Or the Solution.”
It is disappointing that Organizing for America (OFA) has done so little to retool its successful campaign operation into something more. Much has been said about how from the beginning of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, he mobilized more of a “movement” than a traditional political campaign. But a movement it has not proved to be — and one major reason has been the way Obama and his team have used his supporters since winning the presidency. Instead of encouraging Obama backers to get engaged in community initiatives, this remarkable network of citizens was essentially viewed as a lobbying arm to get top-down legislation moving inside the Beltway. OFA was not so much organizing for America as for the Obama administration. They are not the same. Sadly, top-down government in any political administration mobilizes citizens when their collective voice is needed, which is very different from the bottom-up history of everyday Americans originating community action to advance workers’ rights, civil rights and gender equality.
Early in 2009, when OFA asked those on its mailing list what it should be doing in their communities, I wrote back and emphasized that each group of community organizers should determine what needed fixing where they worked and lived and that the energy of the 2008 Obama campaign needed grass-roots nourishment by establishing initiatives that addressed local problems. Unfortunately, there is little evidence that OFA prioritized such bottom-up work. In fact, OFA reported in a follow-up e-mail to the group that the great majority of those on its mailing list agreed that “helping the President pass legislation through grass-roots efforts should be a top goal for OFA.” OFA did acknowledge, however, that more than 60 percent of those initial respondents said “local issues” should also be on OFA’s agenda. But going forward, local issues didn’t get much OFA attention.
Instead, OFA sent a drumbeat of e-mails urging people to support whatever initiative the Obama administration needed help with inside the Beltway. In 2010, people were asked to visit their U.S. senator’s office to bring attention to pending health-care legislation. They were asked to tell a personal story and drop off a flier customized by OFA. In conjunction with legislation that would create the consumer protection agency, David Plouffe, Obama’s political captain, asked voters to download OFA’s “Benefits of Wall Street Reform” statement and hand it out at coffee shops, grocery stores or door to door. While ordinary citizens were used to help the administration, community initiatives not tied to the national agenda got short shrift. No longer were we “the change we seek.” Citizens came to be viewed more as the numbers, and dollars, that the administration needed. Supporters were asked to buy T-shirts from OFA online or to donate $3 for a chance to win a trip to Las Vegas and be at the president’s side at a campaign rally. One appeal simply pleaded, “We need to raise $300,000 by Thursday.”
Efforts by first lady Michelle Obama came much closer to getting people involved in their communities, as she addressed childhood obesity, worked on a “Feed a Neighbor” initiative and sought to help families of veterans and active service members. These were not inside-the-Beltway pleadings but requests for action on all local fronts. Still, most of the messages out of Washington focused on helping “to make history,” with little attention paid to community start-ups.
In preparing for the 2010 midterm elections, OFA advised supporters to register to vote, write letters to their local newspapers, go door to door in support of candidates or call potential supporters. Understandably, when control of Congress was at stake, OFA returned to its 2008 methods. Nonetheless, very little attention was paid to grass-roots efforts other than the volunteer work that served the administration’s political interests.
I don’t suppose anyone should have expected more from a political campaign morphing into a quasi-government Web site. But there was a clear opportunity to do much more. The problem with top-down government, whoever is president, is that Beltway priorities trump everything else. President George H.W. Bush talked about “a thousand points of light” — a useful metaphor for local initiatives, but his administration did little to reconnect Americans to each other and their communities. The Bush outlook was more libertarian than conservative, a radical individualism that paid lip service to Edmund Burke’s “little platoons” — the local institutions of community life. President Bill Clinton raised the issue of civic reconnection but, again, little came of it.
Looking back, will the same be said of Barack Obama? He mobilized an enormous grass-roots force to win election in 2008. But will that be OFA’s primary legacy?