Where’s the movement?

One reason I was optimistic about an Obama Presidency was his ownership of personal political army that could, I figured, be mobilized to pressure Members of Congress. But if Organizing for America has made a difference, I can’t detect it.

So if I were Obama (or Axelrod), the first question on my mind after Massachusetts would be how to re-engage as many as possible of those 12 million people. And that means getting them talking to and meeting with one another, not just getting random emails from Washington.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

18 thoughts on “Where’s the movement?”

  1. As a registered obamabot let me tell you that last summer only about 30 Senators were for the public option. Even folks like Maria Cantwell were against it back then. OFA organized around nagging Congress to support it. Now we're at 57. That's progress.

    OFA also made 2.3 million calls for Coakley last week. They're organizing SOTU watching parties.

    You'd know this if you got involved. The least you could do would be to add OFA's blog to your reader:
    http://my.barackobama.com/page/content/hqblog

  2. As Chris said, Organizing for America made over 2 million calls into MA in four days;
    http://my.barackobama.com/page/community/post/eri

    I received probably dozens of emails and tweets from them requesting people to call MA.

    Coakley ran an awful campaign, by which I mean she took most of December off, did about a third as many events as Brown, and reportedly disdained the idea of shaking voters' hands outside Fenway park.

    Even 20 million calls probably couldn't have saved her. But OFA sure as hell tried.

  3. I made calls for Coakley. Would have been much more enthusiastic if I'd been making calls for Capuano, and several MA special election voters told me the same.

    OFA did do some work on this. OFA has also been having HCR events – talk with your neighbors, small regional parties, etc. Frankly I've not attended OFA events – feeling that the sausage we were getting was not worth selling to others, and that selling others on improvements wouldn't have any effect in Washington. I did try to influence my representative and Senators directly via calls, office visits, town hall meetings to no avail.

  4. As a Boston area voter, I have to attest to the power of the ground game, largely organized by OFA, here. With the friendly media environment and the "magic in the bottle" that Brown had, the loss could have been much worse. It was the last few days of ferocious GOTV effort that made this close.

    Say what you will about Coakley; she was chosen in a primary by Democratic voters. No one thought much about which candidate would be the one who appeal to the young voter, the sporadic voter, the occasionally active black or hispanic voter. If there is any lesson from this election season, I think it is this: The Obama machine cannot be effectively mobilized for any old Democrat running. Ask Corzine, Deeds, or Coakley. People will work hard, but it is out of loyalty to Obama. But they would work much harder and more effectively if there is an insurgent appeal in the candidate.

  5. With respect, I think that Mark was specifically referring to whether OFA had done any good at "pressuring members of Congress"–not getting Coakley elected (@chrismealy: you got this, and I agree about the public option). I take Mark's implicit context to be not Coakley's loss but some Democrats' blatant cowardice regarding health care in the aftermath of the loss–a cowardice that, thank Activism, seems to be dissipating as I write late Wednesday evening.

    There are actually systematic reasons to believe that Organizing for America would predictably have had, and did have, a hard time making the transition from electing people to pressuring members of Congress on behalf of a President–not that it didn't try, and try different ways of doing it when one way didn't work. For different takes, see Charles Homans' "The Party of Obama" (http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2010/1001.homans.html –basically saying that Organizing for America should turn itself into a huge Democratic field staff) and Ari Melber's more multifaceted and comprehensive treatment (teaser article, and link to the 74-page full version, at http://www.thenation.com/doc/20100125/melber).

  6. It is good to see OFA still active … MA was such a clusterfuck, it could probably not have saved the day.

    My big disappointement has been Rahm Emanuel. Wasn't he the "ramrod" who was going to push Obama's programme through Congress? Anyone with a job evaluation?

    After a long career, one thing I always remember is W.Edwards Deming's precept that to react to a random event is the biggest mistake of all. Coakley's defeat seemed to have come about by a perfect storm of sheer misfortunes – gaffe-prone, an pseudo-incumbent without clients who owed her, a tanking economy, healthcare being so unique in that MA already has a system, Brown being so personable and having the guts not to kowtow overmuch to the tea-baggers (i.e. to the voters he was fresh & independent, not a Palin clone)…

    Ok, the 60 is gone, but how long is it since Al Franken was sworn in? By all means, listen to the wake-up call, but there is no reason to turn the ship around, or even change course overmuch.

    I follow English soccer on and off. At Manchester United, they have a saying "Just keep playing, and the goals will come". The originator was an great Irish player, Jackie Carey, who told it to his team when they were 2-1 down to Blackpool in a Cup Final, with 10 minutes left. United won 3-2. No matter how good your game plan is, the opposition can always by luck, circumstance or skill, score a goal against you. But if you believe in your game plan, there is no need for panic or drastic changes. Not that some tweaking may not be necessary (positional switches, a judicious substitution) but as Deming (a bit more gently) put it: don't fuck around with a system that's throwing random errors, it makes things worse.

  7. Seconding Bruce. Once Bernanke, Geithner and Larry 'Smartest Man in the World (who f*cks up everything he touches)' Summers were chosen, it was clear.

    Then Obama look upon the Bush crime initiates, and said that they were good.

    Then Obama (and Reid) put Lyingberman into a chairmanship, without extracing cooperation on cloture.

    Then Obama did a rather non-transparent back-room deal with the insurance and pharma guys.

    Then the insurance and pharma guys looked at Obama and reneged on that deal.

    Then Obama did sh*t jack sh*t to make it clear that reneging on a deal with him carried a cost,

    not a frikkin' profit.

    Then Obama found out that senators were watching that, and learning about him.

    Then Obama watched for months as Max 'godd*mn him to h*ll' Baucus delayed for months.

    Then Obama watched for months as the GOP pursued a campaign of 100% delegitimization and obstruction, and did sh*t jack sh*t about it. Even though the strategy was clear and simple and open,

    and carried an excellent chance of success.

    Then Obama wasted the best year for Wall St reform and bashing since the 1930's, doing nothing but pumping money into banks, who didn't lend.

    In short, Obama has seriously screwed the pooch this year; if he doesn't get smarter, he's a one-termer.

  8. The progressive rhetoric of candidate Obama was a lot more inspiring than the actions/policies of the Obama administration (see Greenwald), and even if you could keep the base energetic, it's easier to vote than to put pressure on your congressman. Brown was a game changer for the Right, and they allocated media efficiently.

  9. I'm on that OFA list. I campaigned for Obama for most of 2008, making calls, going door to door, stuffing envelopes etc. But I am not a Democrat nor would I ever be one. I'm very liberal on some issues and not so much on others.

    All the OFA emails do is turn me off. It's DNC boilerplate stuff for the most part and concerned not with what I worked so hard for in '08 as much as what's good for the DNC. I despise the Democrats. The only saving grace they have is that they aren't the GOP.

    This year has been one of collosal failure of leadership on behalf of the Obama WH, Pelosi and Reid. They've taken the greatest chance for fundamental positive change in this country we've had in nearly a century and pi$$ed it all away. Yes, I'd take the senate bill over nothing, but once again there is ZERO serious cost containment in that bill. It's going to have marginal (though positive) effects and it's going to cost us far too much money.

    Obama, Pelosi and the trest of them have failed to grasp that the real issue on healthcare was always cost. Other than hand-wringing, if this was only about the previously uninsured, nothing would have happened. Those people didn't, don't and never will have the votes or political clout to make a difference. The healthcare I was hoping for would have put massive constraints on cost and corporate profits which would have helped every small business in America. When they axed the public option, it stopped being about cost and started being all about insuring the uninsured. A worthwhile goal, but not something you'll get the whole country behind you on.

    Obama gets a solid C+ from me on accomplishments but a D- on leadership. Depending on Pelosi and Reid, who did bupkis from 2006-2008 to make healthcare happen was not just foolish, but predictably so.

  10. I've been wondering where that army of supporters that was supposed to transform future battles had gone since we don't seem to hear much from them. But then you cannot expect them to be excited when the administration seems to be less concerned about their desires than they are about getting Republican votes.

    Yes Coakley was terrible and didn't deserve the seat she was running for since vacation was apparently more important to her. But the same applies to how this administration treats its supporters–they don't deserve them since Republican votes are obviously more important.

    How many decades will it take these people to get it?

  11. The first three comments talk about phone calls made for Coakley.

    I live in Boston and my wife is registered “unenrolled” (which is what other states would call “independent”, but we have an “Independent American Party” in Massachusetts). In November we got phone calls asking us to support various people running for Mayor. In December we got phone calls asking us to vote for various candidates in the Democratic special-election primary. In January we got call after call from both the Coakley and Brown folks. Several of my friends told me how fed-up they were with getting these phone calls. I went to canvass on Election Day for Coakley, and some of the other volunteers there talked about how fed-up they were with the phone calls.

    Also, regarding Tom’s comment that Coakley “was chosen in a primary by Democratic voters”: she was chosen by the state Democratic party machine, she had more statewide name recognition than any of her primary opponents, and the primary campaign was too short for any of those opponents get off the ground. The party machine in this state has a very poor record promoting politicians with statewide appeal: that’s how Romney got elected governor in 2002 (running as a Republican against a machine candidate) and, indirectly, how Weld got elected governor in 1990 (running as a Republican against former BU President John Silber, who beat a machine candidate in the Democratic primary).

  12. I was on the OFA mailing list and proud of that. I gave time and money I did not have because I was living on savings from November 2007 to August 2008. But the absolute fecklessness of the Obama Administration on HCR, Gitmo, DADT, EFCA, etc. required that I unsubscribe for my own mental health. Had Obama actually, you know, fought for anything, his base would have stuck with him, win or lose. Instead he and his Rasputin from Chicago figured the way to go was to corral AHIP, Big Pharma, Wall Street for their own personal political benefit. That was never going to work, but Rahm in his infinite wisdom (yeah, right) believed that we had no other place to go and would therefore have to remain on the reservation. He was mistaken. We may not have any other place to go, but that does not mean we have to stick with them. Then there was the President's peculiar desire for a bipartisanship with people who hate him and will never come around. Until the GOP changes there is no percentage in trying to work with them; only a fool cannot see that. Of course, there was also never any percentage in deferring to Max Baucus, for God's sake on, on HCR either but never mind. I have heard from people that we OFA types have to organize and fight for these things on our own. Well, we already did that in 2008: The message was "change we can believe in," but not so much as it turned out. Obama infamously invoked Ronald Reagan during the campaign. I knew what he was doing and even though he missed the point about Reagan and Government by a mile, I let it go. But here is the thing. Reagan was the Great Communicator and despite a severe misunderstanding about the world, he led his "people." He even looked good in a brown suit while reading from the teleprompter. If Obama is willing to lead the fight, we can finish it. But blaming OFA and its fellow travelers for the current clusterf*ck is akin to blaming George Pickett and the events of July 3 for the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg. Yeah, that'll work, if you ignore what happened on July 1 and 2 of 1863, while also forgetting that Pickett was commanded by Longstreet and Lee.

    One more thing. During the two terms of Bush the Lesser, I turned off the radio (no TV news for me…who needs that much aggravation) every time I heard his voice. I now do the same when Obama comes on. Bush was in way over his head, bless his heart, and his actions were inexcusable and often evil when they weren't unconstitutional. But he did believe in what he said and saw much of his rhetoric through to the end. One year ago I would have followed Obama in any legitimate fight for what he campaigned on. But now I simply do not believe a word that comes out of his mouth. He can't be trusted. I have been practicing my politics on the "left wing of the possible" and voting Democratic since 1974. I'll still not vote for any imaginable GOPer, but I'm done with Obama. Oh, and one more thing. That 60-vote requirement? Total bullshit. It never seemed to hold back the Bushistas, did it?

  13. One of the problems for the Democrats now is that the "movement" that Mark writes about exists, but there's a much stronger one on the other side. Yes, perhaps 2.3M calls were made for Coakley, but Scott Brown also had calls being made around the country. While the movement for Obama was certainly very strong and powerful in 2007/2008, one of the reasons it looked so big was because there wasn't really any movement opposite it. (I mean, really, how many people were going to call and say "hey, can John McCain have your vote?" – he was perhaps the most uninspiring candidate in recent memory). However, the Dems issues have stemmed from the fact that the fact that their actions in Washington over the past 12 months have invigorated a strong, angry, conservative movement. If this country really is a center-right nation, then that movement can overpower the liberal movement.

  14. Atrios puts it rather succinctly this morning:

    "They've governed with a kind of 'trust us we know what we're doing' approach which doesn't really give outside activists much to do."

  15. Let's have more of those "Obama passed more of his agenda in his first year than LBJ" articles. And where do we hang the "Healthcare Accomplished" banner?

  16. Rahm has the liberals pretty well in hand, according to Rahm. Why don't you ask him?

    Sorry to sound bitter, but my family and I worked damned hard to get Obama elected. To have him turn around and start re-confirming the worst of the Cheney policies less than a month after saying the right thing in his inauguration speech, then the total lack of leadership on health care reform, and the constant stream of insults directed at "some on the left"… remind me why I should work for him again?

    Cranky

  17. 09 in some ways was a wasted opportunity. With high unemployment, there could have been a concerted effort to reach out to the unemployed, get them to meetings that allowed them to vent their frustrations BEFORE they headed off to healthcare townhalls, BEFORE TEA baggers got to them, and certainly BEFORE Palin channeled her inner Stephen King.

    But OFA didn't. They simply sent e-mails asking for additional contributions because of X, Y, and Z. And I don't know, in retrospect perhaps the Administration should have come out with a ball-busting banking reform bill, channeling everyone's collective anger at a well-deserving target.

    what I know is that watching the health care negotiations fall apart in the Senate was excruciatingly discouraging. What's the point of donating money or phone-banking when Dems like Nelson hold the party and the President's agenda hostage?

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