Where is the Obama Movement?

I’ve been traveling around the country for the past three weeks talking about Herding Donkeys and the question I’ve been asked most often is: what happened? How did we get from Obama’s historic election and a massive Democratic majority after the 2008 election to the emergence of the Tea Party and major Republican electoral gains in 2010?

Last night, at a book event at the Harvard Coop in Cambridge, I posed that very question to Marshall Ganz, an expert on community organizing at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a key organizing theorist behind Obama’s grassroots political movement. You can watch the video exchange below:

Ganz explains how Obama moved from a “transformational” leader during the campaign to a “transactional” politician as president. Some of that, of course, was to be expected–candidates need to inspire while presidents have to govern. Governing, by nature, is often transactional. Nonetheless, transformational leaders find a way to get beyond transactional politics, Ganz argued, pointing to Ronald Reagan as a prime example. “Reagan shows exactly how to govern, which is aligning yourself with a movement outside Washington that is capable of mobilizing pressure on forces inside Washington so that you can change the rules of the game.” That was also the model Obama promised to follow during the campaign, but has yet to really test as president. He played by the conventional Washington rules instead of trying to change them.

“He shifted from a politics of advocacy to compromise,” Ganz says. Once inside the White House, Obama viewed his own grassroots organization “like a tiger you can’t control.” The attitude toward his supporters changed from “Yes We Can” to “Yes I Can.”

Yet for all the roads not taken, Obama’s political problems are, in large part, the result of a sour economy. But Ganz believes the president could’ve used the economic crisis to his advantage—as a mass teachable moment about the importance of government in a time of need. “If Obama has come in and taken control of the economic crisis, in the same way he dealt with the race issue during the campaign,” Ganz argues, the Tea Party would not have flourished. But instead there existed a vacuum, and the Tea Party’s anti-government rage filled it up. It remains to be seen just how much longevity the Tea Party will have. “It’s more of a death rattle than a victory cry,” Ganz said, the last gasp of a dying demographic.

You can see much more of the discussion, in six parts, on YouTube. Many thanks to Jim Moore for filming and uploading!

Cross posted at TheNation.com

This entry was posted in Barack Obama, Herding Donkeys, organizing. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Where is the Obama Movement?

  1. Mike Maday says:

    We enjoyed the book launch a couple weeks ago in NYC. As an early Camp Obama alum and early Obama Organizer in Colorado, Hearding Donkeys really helped me more clearly understand the genesis and genius of what we did in 08. And I’ve also enjoyed reading and watching the attention the book is receiving through the blog and media outlets. But some of this discussion seems a bit backward looking and self-agrandizing, like “those were the days and it’s all going to hell now and it’s all Obama’s fault and we are powerless and there is no longer any hope for change”.

    In Southern Colorado it has been exciting to re-engage to fight the Tea Party backlash to change, especially in two extremely tight races. Both Senator Michael Bennet’s race and Representative John Salazar’s race in the Colorado 3rd are down to turnout. In the new post Citizen’s United environment I’m not sure ground game matters. And the conventional wisdom is that community organizing can’t fight the power of the 527 ads. But if citizen action does still matter this is the place for it. The enthusiasm gap here appears real but not insurmountable. In our county we had 2400 Obama volunteers in 08. It has been uplifting to see volunteers who I had not seen in nearly two years come into our local Bennet office and get back to work. In 08 for many of these people the idea of engaging in basic political organizing activities like knocking doors, phone banking or talking to neighbors was a difficult hurdle to overcome. They had never done this kind of thing before. This fall these same folks come in, ask for a phone list or walk list and get right at it. Our local democratic party hoped this fall to distribute 2000 packets of literature to Democrats through Precinct Chairs. After about a week and after putting out 9000 packets they had to stop that activitiy because they ran out of lit. And some very experienced organizers are showing up here on their own initiative from other parts of the country to pitch in.

    So in closing my comment I’d like to put in a pitch for a few additional experienced organizers in these races where a few hundred votes could make the difference. If anyone has an itch to help in the next twelve days and a way to get here, give me a call at 719.471.0970 or an email at resresco@att.net and we can talk about how you might help us write the story for 2010 and get a start on 2012.

    Si Se Puede,

    Mike Maday
    Colorado Springs

  2. Pingback: Obama Organizers Fight Tea Party Backlash | Herding Donkeys

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