Online Political Organizing in the Age of Obama

The potential changes in the Obama campaign infrastructure as it moves from campaign season into the White House has consumed the Digitalati, that subset of the professional political and journalistic class that focuses on the intersection of politics and digital technology. The speculation has centered primarily around two interrelated questions. The first question is how an Obama administration will incorporate technology to create more responsive and participatory government, as in the debate surrounding Obama’s appointment of a Chief Technology Officer. The other set of questions has revolved around how the existing campaign infrastructure (volunteers, lists, organizers, relationships) will be used to pursue Obama’s agenda and lay the foundation for a reelection bid. Today brings news on this front, as Peter Wallsten of the LA Times suggests the campaign team is laying the groundwork for a massive new organization.

As Barack Obama builds his administration and prepares to take office next week, his political team is quietly planning for a nationwide hiring binge that would marshal an army of full-time organizers to press the new president’s agenda and lay the foundation for his reelection.

The organization, known internally as “Barack Obama 2.0,” is being designed to sustain a grass-roots network of millions that was mobilized last year to elect Obama and now is widely considered the country’s most potent political machine.

The key questions still remain unresolved: where will the organization target, how tied will it be to the DNC, how much money will they spend and what, exactly, will they do? However, it seems fairly likely that a new, massive force is here to stay in American politics – apart from the accouterments of office, Obama will have at his disposal an unprecedented political machine not bound to any party or interest group. The cult of Obama lives on.

Badass

Badass

I am interested in both the political and governance angles, and will continue to blog on them in the future. For now, however, I’m more interested in the organizing going on outside the Obama umbrella than within it. On that front, there are two developments worth watching. The first is a new organization from MoveOn’s Adam Green that fills a huge hole in the budding progressive infrastructure. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee will work to connect good, first time, progressive candidates with the necessary resources for running a competent campaign. Having spent a summer working on a campaign for a first time candidate, I can personally vouch for how difficult it is to gain traction amongst political professionals without political experience. Contemporary campaigns require competent professionals who are able to cost effectively deliver services, but ideal candidates may not have the expertise or experience to differentiate between legitimate, cost effective strategists and hucksters and machine hacks.

Although the Democrats (namely, Obama’s team) may seem to have effectively sewn shut the gap between the progressive and conservative political infrastructures, after years in the wilderness, the left may lack the political organizing skills required to pressure the democratic trifecta into making the most of this once in a generation opportunity. Chris Bowers at OpenLeft suggests that liberal activists act early to identify, monitor and legislation as soon as it originates, before it is moved to committee or assigned a spot on the legislative agenda. This would give activists the opportunity to pressure legislators while in they are still in the formative stages of the process, as opposed to when the time for a vote comes, and it is already likely too late to have an impact.

This is an important and good idea, but doesn’t quite go far enough. There needs to be coordination by the left to pressure Obama into supporting (or giving Obama political cover for moving slightly to the right of) truly progressive legislation. The issue of holding Obama in particular to his stated agenda can’t exist within either the DNC or a separate Barack Obama 2.0 organization, because they won’t have the same freedom to pressure reluctant Democrats to come to heed. I think progressives need to go a step further, and form an organization devoted to holding Obama to account for his promises, as explicitly as possible.

I am imagining something similar to what Bowers describes, but more systemitized and wikified – a platform like OpenCongress.org that aggregates information on existing legislation, but goes a step further to connect supporters with ways of becoming involved. I am certain the Obama team has something like this in mind for their BO 2.0 idea, but the platform would have greater potential if it were more independent of the Obama team. This way Obama would have plausible deniability about the efforts of activists, but could still be called to account for living up to his promises. (Perhaps even calling it Yes we might?).

I will continue to try to elaborate this idea in the coming weeks, but I’d be interested to hear any feedback on ideas for a platform to hold Obama accountable.

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One Response

  1. […] built into the United States Constitution.  From the perspective of progressivism, there is much to cheer in the policy aims of this as-yet nascent political movement.  But in the long-view of history, […]

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