Americans who follow the news know two things so far about Barack Obama’s reelection campaign. Somehow—although we’re not quite sure where or why—it has already begun. And Obama is prepared to put a lot of money toward a second term.
Americans who follow developments more closely have heard that Obama’s re-election is being called “the billion dollar campaign” since he may be the first contender to raise such big bucks. We know that Obama’s been rattling the tin cup, especially in California, New York and Chicago. Some of us have read about the recent fundraisers in Hollywood, with folks like Jeffrey Katzenberg, Steven Spielberg, Will Ferrell, Tom Hanks and George Clooney.
And then there are the few of us who, devouring politics avidly, wonder why it is that we taxpayers foot the entire gas bill for these fundraiser jaunts as long as one teeny tiny daily event during any given trip is “presidential” rather than “political.” We wonder because the Department of the Treasury doesn’t extend any such largesse to ordinary Americans configuring business expenses.
Given this general context, I was bemused this past Monday to get an email blast from Jim Messina, Campaign Manager, Obama ’12, asking “grassroots supporters like you” “to help build this campaign.”
Messina writes: “The most important aspect is this: Our campaign will be grounded in President Obama’s experience as a community organizer. This notion of ordinary people taking responsibility for the organization at the neighborhood level is not only the way to win, it’s also the way politics ought to work.”
If I didn’t take President Obama seriously, this would be a kiss-off note thanking you, Jim Messina, for making my Monday. What a good laugh I had, JM. But since I respect this president, in whose service Messina & Co. appear to be headed off-course already, gnawing at trees and beavering dams along the wrong streams, I am going to take the time to try to set you straight.
First and foremost, GRASSROOTS + PRESIDENTIAL RE-ELECTION = OXYMORON.
It disturbs me that you did not see this from the get-go. A president of the United States, by the very nature of the office, wields too much power as one man to run credibly with any grassroots, who by their very nature are powerless upstarts, buckers of the status quo, who succeed, if they manage to do so, only through the weight of their numbers.
In sum, this is not a re-election strategy in which Americans can believe.
I should be able to rest my case here with the grassroots absurdity. But since I fear that even at this early date you are stubbornly set on yesteryear’s path, here are four other arguments against your plan.
History never repeats itself. You and I, no matter how long we may live, likely will never see a presidential campaign run as well as Obama 2008. We may never see another election in which the electorate gets so passionately involved.
Grassroots that kindle prairie fires are rare. Yet there have been not one but two great grassroots uprisings recently—Organizing for America and the Tea Party Movement. Fuel has been spent. Unless and until Hispanic Americans finally step forward to contest the public sphere, we will not see another grassroots movement anytime soon.
Americans cannot be fooled twice. Many Obama volunteers ’08 really believed that they were part of campaign decision-making. However, as the savvy knew then and many more know now, the idea that your grassroots exercised power was a deft illusion. In reality, Obama ’08 was the most rigorously disciplined, controlled from the top-down campaign old political hands had ever seen. Even your Camp Obama guru Marshall Ganz has talked about this dis-connect during the past two years. I have written about it. Micah Sifry of Personal Democracy Forum has dissected your methodology several times.
In short, the Obama ’08 zeitgeist is no longer “grassroots” but “control.”
People have moved on. Students and retired folks, who made up the bulk of your grassroots ’08, have more important concerns now. Young people are focused on getting jobs. Retirees, who have seen their savings diminish, have returned to work. As surely you must see, the atmosphere in the country has changed two-plus years into Obama’s first term.
If the 2012 Election is not going to turn on “grassroots” and “community organizing,” or, as Obama himself put it in a following email, “frustration with the pace of change,” what will it be?
Here is what 2012 will be about:
For the Republican candidate, trying to win. (Note that I did not say “the Republican Party,” which, if canny, will have a different goal.)
For President Obama, leading. (Note that I did not say “Barack Obama.” He can never be merely “Barack” ever again.)
Almost certainly, President Obama will be re-elected. So in this last campaign, he needs to keep his eye on the prize: his second-term priorities, and how he will present them—whatever they may be—to the American people.
Getting traction here is going to be extraordinarily difficult because, as our country undergoes profound change (loss of middle class wealth and stability, a new health care system that people do not understand, fierce competition from globalization), voters do not know where “the middle” is anymore. Establishing a new political midpoint is going to take some time; any Obama second term will be over before it is fixed.
If President Obama keeps his eye on the prize, he will always have in the back of his mind in ’12 four things–four considerations among the God-knows-how-many others jostling for place in a presidential brain.
Tomorrow: the four things.
To follow: what does “winning” mean for the Republicans, if their candidate has little or no chance of getting the presidency?
April 28, 2011