This essay incorrectly said that Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) opposes a public health insurance plan. Specter has said that he supports such a plan.
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Peter Dreier and Marshall Ganz -- We Have Hope; Where's the Audacity?
What went wrong?
The White House and its allies forgot that success requires more than proposing legislation, negotiating with Congress and polite lobbying. It demands movement-building of the kind that propelled Obama's long-shot candidacy to an almost landslide victory. And it must be rooted in the moral energy that can transform people's anger, frustrations and hopes into focused public action, creating a sense of urgency equal to the crises facing the country.
Remember that the Obama campaign inspired an unprecedented grass-roots electoral movement, including experienced activists and political neophytes. It deployed 3,000 organizers to recruit thousands of local volunteer leadership teams (1,100 in Ohio alone). They, in turn, mobilized 1.5 million volunteers and 13.5 million contributors. And throughout the campaign, Obama reminded supporters that the real work of making change would only begin on Election Day.
Once in office, the president moved quickly, announcing one ambitious legislative objective after another. But instead of launching a parallel strategy to mobilize supporters, most progressive organizations and Organizing for America -- the group created to organizeObama's former campaign volunteers -- failed to keep up. The president is not solely responsible for his current predicament; many progressives have not acknowledged their role.
Since January, most advocacy groups committed to Obama's reform objectives (labor unions, community organizations, environmentalists and netroots groups such as MoveOn) have pushed the pause button. Organizing for America, for example, encouraged Obama's supporters to work on local community service projects, such as helping homeless shelters and tutoring children. That's fine, but it's not the way to pass reform legislation.
One Obama campaign volunteer from Delaware County, Pa., put it this way soon after the election: "We're all fired up now, and twiddling our thumbs! . . . Here, ALL the leader volunteers are getting bombarded by calls from volunteers essentially asking 'Nowwhatnowwhatnowwhat?' "
Meanwhile, as the president's agenda emerged, his former campaign volunteers and the advocacy groups turned to politics as usual: the insider tactics of e-mails, phone calls and meetings with members of Congress. Some groups -- hoping to go toe-to-toe with the well-funded business-backed opposition -- launched expensive TV and radio ad campaigns in key states to pressure conservative Democrats. Lobbying and advertising are necessary, but they have never been sufficient to defeat powerful corporate interests.
In short, the administration and its allies followed a strategy that blurred their goals, avoided polarization, confused marketing with movement-building and hoped for bipartisan compromise that was never in the cards. This approach replaced an "outsider" mobilizing strategy that not only got Obama into the White House but has also played a key role in every successful reform movement, including abolition, women's suffrage, workers' rights, civil rights and environmental justice.
Grass-roots mobilization raises the stakes, identifies the obstacles to reform and puts the opposition on the defensive. The right-wing fringe understood this simple organizing lesson and seized the momentum. Its leaders used tactics that energized their base, challenged specific elected officials and told a national story, enacted in locality after locality.
It is time for real reformers to take back the momentum.
In the past two weeks, proponents of Obama's health-care reform finally woke up. They showed up in large numbers at town hall meetings sponsored by elected officials across the nation.
The president himself used his bully pulpit with more resolve, attending public events and addressing conference calls with religious groups, unions and others to urge them to mobilize on behalf of reform.