Herding Donkeys | The Nation


Herding Donkeys

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Marshall Ganz, a devotee of Cesar Chavez and the civil rights movement, was the closest thing to an organizing theorist behind the Obama movement. He mentored young organizers who became the backbone of Obama's campaign and trained hundreds of new activists. Ganz hoped, after the election, that these organizers would fundamentally alter the way business got done in Washington. Instead, he watched OFA assemble in secret and the Obama administration squander, in his view, an enormous opportunity to engage its grassroots base in the months after the election. In August 2009, five days after Ted Kennedy's death, Ganz and Occidental College political science professor Peter Dreier enumerated their critique in a Washington Post op-ed titled, "We Have the Hope. Now Where's the Audacity?"

This article is adapted from Ari Berman's Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, published this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2010 by Ari Berman. All rights reserved.


About the Author

Ari Berman
Ari Berman
Ari Berman, a contributing writer for The Nation magazine and an Investigative Journalism Fellow at The Nation...

Also by the Author

The federal government and civil rights groups want the state's anti-voting law blocked before the 2014 midterms. 

One year after the Supreme Court gutted the VRA, few Republicans have signed on to a legislative solution.

"The White House and its allies forgot that success requires more than proposing legislation, negotiating with Congress and polite lobbying," Dreier and Ganz wrote. "It demands movement-building of the kind that propelled Obama's long-shot candidacy to an almost landslide victory." The institutions that were supposed to channel the movement, mainly OFA, "failed to keep up," they wrote. The administration, they contended, "confused marketing with movement-building."

* * *

In December 2008 Dean described his vision for Obama's DNC. "I'd like the DNC to now mature into a two-way communication between ordinary Americans who want to influence their government and the president of the United States," he said. The Obama campaign, after all, was premised on the idea that the people who elected him would have a say in running the country. "I will ask for your service and your active citizenship when I am president of the United States," Obama said while campaigning in Colorado Springs in July 2008. "This won't be a call issued in one speech or one program; I want this to be a central cause of my presidency." Only Obama entered the White House with millions of supporters who could theoretically be activated with the click of a mouse; they expected him, however naïvely, to follow through on his promise. "Our signs didn't say, Status Quo '08," remarked former top Obama adviser Paul Tewes.

Unfortunately, that White House dialogue has too often been one-sided: Here's the policy. Go support it. "The White House began to believe that they could mobilize their supporters without hearing what their supporters really wanted in terms of specific change," Dean says. "The principal problem with OFA is the same one the president's having. You can't dictate to your base what's going to happen. It's got to be a two-way deal, and it hasn't been."

OFA operates under the assumption that the president's policy is always the best possible one. But what about when it isn't? What are Obama's supporters to do then? They are told to sell the policy, but they can't influence the shaping of the product. "There's a certain hubris among the people around Obama in the White House that they were above the fray and didn't have to pay attention to the base," says Iowa Senator Tom Harkin. "Certainly a president has to govern from the middle, but you've got to reassure your base that what they did and how hard they worked was worth something." Much of the tension can be traced back to White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, a consummate Beltway insider, who replaced David Plouffe, the Obama inner circle's past conduit to the grassroots, as the central figure in Obama's orbit.

Obama's organizers on the inside, like OFA deputy field director Jeremy Bird—a 32-year-old alumnus of the Dean and Obama campaigns and a disciple of Ganz's—find themselves in an unfamiliar position. Like it or not, they are tied to Washington's governing establishment. Bird insists that he still doesn't "feel part of the DC pundit, insider crowd" and spends as much time as possible outside the Beltway. In its first year, OFA held 937 listening tours by staff in 600 cities across fifty states. Concerns from activists around the country are transmitted back to the White House political department on an ongoing basis. "I know that Obama cares about that," Bird says. But despite the best of Bird's efforts to stay in sync with Obama's grassroots base, he takes his cues from the White House. "You can run a grassroots political movement out of the DNC, inside the Beltway," Tim Kaine loftily proclaims. But such an aspiration, even Kaine admits, sounds awfully like an oxymoron.

OFA now feels more like any other advocacy organization and less like a movement or Obama's groundbreaking campaign. It turns out that grassroots organizing and Washington sausage-making blend about as well as vodka and milk. "It's no coincidence that some of us who are organizers didn't go into the White House," says former Obama field director Temo Figueroa. "I would've been fired in the first fucking month." OFA was meant to blend the two worlds, but it often floats in a political no man's land, tethered to a Washington establishment yet unable to change it. Critics like Ganz suspect that is by design. The White House doesn't want its activists to disrupt the backroom deals its aides cut with lobbyists and legislators, nor does it want them putting too much pressure on obstructionist Democrats, lest it alienate key swing votes in Congress. When MoveOn.org ran ads targeting conservative Democrats who were blocking healthcare reform, Rahm Emanuel memorably called the ads "fucking retarded." And, indeed, the White House has expended considerable political capital denouncing the "professional left" and defending apostate Democrats like Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas from insurgent primary challengers, which has further undermined Obama's reformist brand.

"I'm not looking to pick another fight with Rahm Emanuel, but the contempt with which he held the progressive wing of the party was devastating and incredibly demoralizing," Dean says. "That's basically saying to your own people, You got us here, now F-you." The progressive voices Emanuel excluded from Obama's inner circle included Dean himself, who famously clashed with the chief of staff over how and where Democrats should spend their limited resources in 2006. Emanuel's elevation—and Dean's snub—has come to signify a broader abandonment of the party's grassroots base, especially as Obama packed his White House with well-worn veterans of previous administrations, quite an irony given his critique of Hillary during the primary as a washed-up Washington insider. The top-down structure of Obama's administration is the virtual opposite of his campaign. This strikes Dean and Ganz as an odd calculation. His supporters, Obama always said, were his most powerful asset. So why doesn't he unleash them?

"I definitely think he tried to extend a new model of campaigning into a new model of governing," says White House transition chief John Podesta. "By that, I mean his decision-making, his openness, his attempt at broader-based participation, his desire to cool off the intense partisanship in Washington....But at the end of the day, the Washington culture is pretty hard to change. So they defaulted to a position that looks and feels a little more like what we experienced in the '90s."

If a president can't lead a movement from the White House, Ganz argues, he can at least encourage its development on the outside, as Reagan did with the New Right. "It takes two hands to make a clapping noise," he says. "Inside and outside. If inside is put in charge of outside, then there's no more outside. The very sources of power that put you there in the first place begin to evaporate." But Obama's White House has never felt comfortable with both worlds or fully explored the possibility of governing in a fundamentally different way, despite Obama's initial conversation with Kaine after the election. "There's a core philosophy inside the administration of avoiding conflict and trying to assert control," Ganz says. "That's not how you run a movement."

Former top campaign officials are watching with dismay as what Ganz once termed "the movement to elect Barack Obama," however opaque its policy goals, keeps contracting rather than expanding. "I think he has that network of people outside Washington behind him, but those are delicate relationships that, if not carefully maintained and put to good use, will atrophy over time," says former Obama new-media director Joe Rospars. In 2009 a million people joined Obama's vaunted campaign e-mail list of 13 million followers, according to Plouffe, but OFA refused to say if the number of people who chose to unsubscribe dwarfed the newcomers. "I haven't really done the math," Kaine replied when pressed on the numbers. "Obama's a learner," Ganz says. "He can still learn. The big question is: what's he learning from all this?"

The dramatic revival of healthcare reform following Scott Brown's upset Senate win in Massachusetts presented a perfect opportunity for Obama to regain his footing and recapture the magic of his campaign. As he successfully fought for passage of his signature domestic priority, the dynamic and forceful leader who inspired the masses on the campaign trail temporarily re-emerged. The last weeks of the healthcare debate—as Obama supporters made nearly 500,000 calls to members of Congress in the final ten days before the House vote—showed how effective OFA activists could be when Obama gave them something tangible to fight for. On the night of the House vote, Obama paid homage to his grassroots supporters and specifically credited "the untold numbers who knocked on doors and made phone calls, who organized and mobilized out of a firm conviction that change in this country comes not from the top down but from the bottom up."

Yet the celebration proved to be a fleeting one. Gridlock returned to Washington, oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico and the economy remained stagnant. It's evident that the battle to reshape American politics didn't end after Obama's election, nor will it stop after another. And the future of the Democratic Party will not be fashioned inside the Beltway, no matter how much of an impact its decisions have on the rest of the country. It's not too late for Obama to turn his presidency and party around, but he'll need to start by re-inspiring his supporters and steadying them for the election in November and the long fight ahead.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.