Change-o-meter: Another Online Tool To Measure Obama’s Promises

The “Yes We Might” meme seems to have infected another online host. Slate.com has rolled out an irreverent and  informative daily roundup of the amount of progress Obama made in changing Washington called the Change-O-Meter.

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As you can see, this slightly ironic take on the Obameter idea is a typical Slate offering, and nothing like the idea suggested by yours truly to build a collaborative online platform for activism around Obama’s agenda. However, Slate’s offering actually has arguably more accountability than the Obameter, in the form of a chat that explains the criteria for the daily rating. Also, the witty roundup of political news from a critical perspective is more likely to gain an audience than the dry presentation of promises by the Obameter.

I’ll give the Slate guys an A for doing well for what they were trying to do, but it’s still not the full hover car.

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“Obameter”: Close, but No Hover Car

Politifact, a next-gen online journalism project from the St. Petersberg Times put together an online resource that tracks the 510 campaign promises Obama made during the course of the election called the Obameter. It’s a clever start. The site isn’t perfect, but it shows my idea of creating a platform to hold Obama accountable to his campaign promises has caught on elsewhere under a different guise. Unfortunately, I think the Obameter lacks the potential of a more activist, participatory platform, because there is no method to use the facts presented to place pressure on Obama. It is a list – not a network. The data represented on the site could be easily tweaked to create a community that would take action to pressure Obama to fulfill his agenda. Even without an activist component, the platform would be more interesting if it had a more open interface.

The Obameter allows you to track campaign promises by subject, or by the amount of progress (or lack there of) made on each promise. It isn’t clear how the changes tracked by Politifact researchers are made, or if there is a way of generating feedback from readers. Politifact is a useful innovation for the Times, and they should be commended for pursuing a new method of journalistic investigation – comprehensive online information tracking resources on specific topics are a natural step in adapting journalistic practice to the online environment. Legacy journalism institutions have a potential niche in the age of free content if they can find a way to provide a seal of approval that verifies aggregated sources while making use of the communities engagement with the story.

Unfortunately, this project has no participatory element, and the work of the researchers can’t be assisted (or challenged) by laypeople. Even an innovative, interesting next gen journalism project like the Obameter demonstrates the newspaper industry’s inability to connect reporters with the communities that they serve. A more open interface, that solicited user feedback, showed a more finely granulated degree of information on each promise, and aggregated news stories and blog posts in a more comprehensive manner (and wasn’t limited to official sources), would be more engaging and would give users a reason to stay at the site. Readers would have more interest in the information and could actually make some use of it. It would be a much more valuable resource to many more people.

In the new media environment journalists shouldn’t cease to be professionals, but the nature of profession will have to change. They should consider themselves leaders, guiding communities towards knowledgeable exchange instead of the source of factual authority. Even in projects where aggregation is the goal, legacy journalistic institutions see themselves as the arbiters of the validity of information, as opposed to a resource that facilitates conversation amongst engaged readers.

What is the Online Organizing Equivalent of the Hover Car?

In an ideal world, we would all have hover cars and progressive activists would have a credible plan for pursuing a progressive agenda in a Democratic trifecta. Alas, we live in a fallen world, bursting with imperfections, not the least of which is a utter lack of hover cars.

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I want his car and his moustache

So the question remains, how should progressives treat the incoming Congress and President, and how should we organize online to maximize the progressive policy outcome. I have already criticized both the President’s new organization and unaffiliated leftists who are already harping about problems with Obama policies. The trick here, as all else in politics, is to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. As our patron, Wallie Von Bismark has been known to say: politics is the art of the possible. Recognizing and maximizing what can be accomplished is the foundation of political judgement.

Progressives should recognize this moment of opportunity, but must also be savvy enough about the process to work it properly. The lack of channels for this kind of activism is why I really liked Chris Bowers idea of monitoring legislation before it reaches a committee vote, which allows for concerted pressure and media exposure prior to the calcification of voting decisions by members of congress. It is a proactive, proscription platform for action that provides progressive activists an avenue into the legislative process. I propose an expansion of this project that allows for wikified, Digg-style legislation/issue tracking platform that would channel grassroots opinion to inform elite discourse without management by party officials. This platform, lets call it Onward.org, would aggregate all the information (blogposts, news stories, issue group statements, Facebook and Myspace postings) by issue area and particular bill in a manner similar to OpenCongress. Each issue and bill node would contain links that provided ways for interested citizens to get involved and connect with organizations working on their issues. The platform would provide members with the opportunity to promote issues on the group’s agenda and promote popular knowledge and participation on issue campaigns. The wikified nature of the group would generate for peer production of content, which would greatly increasing the amount of content available on the site.

Certainly MoveOn would be the organization most capable of pulling off something like this, but from a branding perspective one way to do it would be to tie it to Obama’s stated agenda. The organization could track Obama’s progress towards achieving his campaign promises and take the necessary action to reign him in when it looked as if he was defecting from previously stated policy preferences. The group would give Obama plausible deniability by virtue of it’s independence from the party and could extend the terms of the debate leftward by bringing pressure to bare on  democratic and republican officials. You could also knock up a fancy tracking infographic that would allow you to visually see the progress of the liberal agenda and where it was caught up.

The Limitations of the Cult of Obama

As has been noted elsewhere throughout the blogosphere, and probably in your email box, the Obama campaign made a decision about what to do with the 13 million email addresses they’ve been collecting over the past two years. In this video, Obama announces that Organizing for America will be the next step in the grassroots campaign.

This video makes clear that the Cult of Obama will be folded into the DNC, while maintaining a separate identity. This distinction will split the difference between those who called for a full incorporation within the DNC and those who thought independent and new voters would be turned off by any partisan affiliation. I think this arrangement demonstrates the limitations of candidate based organizations in the US system. Democracy for America – the second incarnation of Howard Dean’s presidential campaign – faced a similar challenge in attempting to pivot grassroots momentum into a post campaign environment, as have Ron Paul supporters. These groups inevitably lose a large percentage of their organization (measured in donations, membership, hours volunteered) depending on the degree to which the campaign can be translated into an issue agenda. Said differently, post-campaign organizations maintain momentum to the degree that the campaign was based on a clear ideological program.

The problem with OfA is that Obama distanced himself from his ideological and partisan affiliation throughout the campaign and it’s unclear the extent to which Obama voters share an ideological viewpoint. To be successful in presidential politics you must assemble a broad coalition of voters and voters tend not to be nearly as ideological coherent as political scientists would like them to be. This motivates presidential campaigns to obscure as much as possible – the most partisan voters have little reason to vote for anyone else and the least partisan voters are likely to be turned off from what they see and don’t like. Presidential candidates thus have an incentive to reveal as little as possible of their policy preferences to the public, all else being equal. Unfortunately, this same incentive cuts directly against the political organization of interest groups and social movements, which are based around stances on a chosen range of policy questions. The American political system is uniquely personality based, compared to most other advanced democracies, which makes it more difficult for out of party organizations to rally behind official programs.

This is all a round about way of saying that any Obama affiliated organization will struggle to transform a personality based organization into a policy/issue organization. Organizing for America has the benefit of starting from a huge base, which allows for a lot of attrition, while still maintaining giant membership. If only 1 in 100 people who contributed to Obama for America contribute to Organizing for America, you’re still talking about one of the biggest organizations in American politics. If the group puts boots on the ground, as some have suggested they are going to do, you’re talking about a truly unique organization in American political history – nothing of this type has really been tried before. It’s unprecedented to have a post-campaign organization with that level of resources.

However, the limitations won’t be due to a lack of resources, but on the lack of flexibility based on a lack of independence. Will Organizing for America really be able to pressure recalcitrant democrats into line using the resources of a DNC affiliated organization? If, say, Blanche Lincoln the Democratic senator from Arkansas who is the most conservative member of the Democratic caucus, is making noises that she won’t vote to override a Republican filibuster on the controversial Employee Free Choice Act, will Organizing for America’s field op in Arkansas really be able to enlist Obama for America volunteers to make calls that pressure her into supporting the bill? I don’t think it’s likely, because those volunteers are probably not willing to make calls against their democratic senator, and the President won’t want to risk alienating the conservative and moderate voters that elected Lincoln in the first place.

Obama wouldn’t want to risk offending Lincoln over the long term by having a Democratic organization take political action against him. The lack of independence between OfA and Obama limits it’s potential to act as an enforcer for progressive ideological goals. Obama wouldn’t want to be seen as publicly breaking with Democratic lawmakers on votes that require party loyalty to override Republican vetoes, such as the Employee Free Choice Act. Of course, the new organization could be helpful in pressuring moderate republican in states that Obama won into supporting broadly popular legislation (OH, ME, NV, PA, NH, IN) , which I suppose is the model they are going for. The organization will be useful in pressuring these potentially moderate Republicans and shouldn’t be discounted for this reason.

However, I think that progressives should concern themselves with the lack of institutional firepower independent of the party that can act as a magnet to pull the pendulum towards the left. Even with large majorities in both houses and the presidency, the American political system is exceptionally resistant to change and the unique political opportunity of the current moment could pass without bold action if the Democrats aren’t held accountable. The Democrats have a singular opportunity to significantly alter the structure of the American economy, reform the contract between citizens and their government, and revitalize our infrastructure for the 21st century. They are going to need someone to hold down their left flank, and give them cover for taking bold policy stances. The pressure must come from outside the party, because party officials, including Obama, are limited in their ability to publicly disagree with their fellow party members.

The problem is that try as they might, political parties can’t incorporate many aspects of social movements, and this organization will run-up against those limitations. The act of governance requires a much tighter adherence to the script than social movements and the vague promises of participatory engagement made to the Obama “movement” will be difficult to allow once in power.

UPDATE: Check out this video from the Onion if you don’t yet see what I mean.
Obama Win Causes Obsessive Supporters To Realize How Empty Their Lives Are