Editor’s Note: This article is an excerpt 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.
A month after the 2008 election, Barack Obama summoned his Democratic Party chair-in-waiting, Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, to Chicago and explained how his presidency and party could prosper going forward.
"How many presidents have tried to meaningfully tackle healthcare?" Obama asked Kaine, who would soon replace outgoing party chair Howard Dean.
"Every Democrat since Truman," Kaine responded.
"How about energy reform?" Obama continued.
"I remember Nixon saying we were importing too much foreign oil, and now we import three times as much," Kaine replied.
"So if they didn’t succeed," Obama asked rhetorically, "was it because they weren’t smart enough?"
"No, they were smart," Kaine answered.
"Was it because they didn’t know the ways of Washington?" Obama followed up, pressing his point like a vintage constitutional law professor.
"No, they knew the ways of Washington," Kaine added.
"So if I try to do these heavy lifts just like they did, what are my chances?" Obama wondered.
"Pretty much zero," Kaine responded.
"Yeah, so what we have to do is figure out a different way to do it," Obama answered.
"If you just rely on your inside-the-Beltway savvy," Kaine agreed, "that’s never going to be enough to make fundamental and important changes, because the forces of inertia inside the Beltway are just going to get in your way."
They both concluded that preserving what Kaine called the "outside-the-Beltway popular muscle" that defined Obama’s campaign would be an essential ingredient for the new president’s success.
At the same time, a debate raged inside the Obama coalition over the future shape of the president-elect’s powerful campaign arm. Obama organizing veterans Steve Hildebrand and Marshall Ganz pushed for an independent organization that would be able to pressure Democrats to support the president’s agenda and act, at least theoretically, separate from the White House. But most influential Obama advisers, led by former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe, saw the Democratic National Committee as its natural home. An independent entity would needlessly antagonize Democrats and be difficult to structure for legal and financial reasons, they argued. Plouffe and company also didn’t want it to seem like Obama’s re-election campaign was starting the day after his election. In the end, Obama for America became Organizing for America—a quasi-autonomous entity within the DNC. OFA promised to change the very nature of governance in Washington, bringing millions of politically savvy Obama supporters into the legislative process and building an unprecedented, people-powered army that could thwart the entrenched power of wealthy corporate interests.
In the early days of Obama’s presidency, it really did feel as if a new day was upon us: Obama passed a massive stimulus bill with ease, presented an entirely different America to the world and effortlessly swatted flies in the middle of TV interviews. These glimmers of hope, however, soon gave way to the harsh realities of governing. During the fight over healthcare reform, the same old intransigencies came back into play. As top Democrats wavered over whether to support a public insurance option and negotiations broke down behind closed doors, ascendant Tea Party activists hijacked the debate in the summer of 2009, screaming about death panels and socialized medicine and comparing Obama to Mao/Hitler/Stalin.
"In the whole period in which we didn’t know what Obama was for and nobody was mobilizing or asked to mobilize, it created this huge vacuum," says Ganz, an expert on community organizing at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. "So the Teabaggers came in and filled it up." Democrats initially dismissed this sudden outbreak of right-wing rage, but the new regime in Washington seemed powerless to stop it. Virtually overnight, the enduring Democratic majority appeared just as fleeting as Karl Rove’s master plan for the Republican Party.
In states across the country, from North Carolina to Indiana to Colorado, the feeling of euphoria that followed Obama’s campaign is now a distant memory. The anti-incumbent rage among voters that threw Republicans out of office and put Obama in the White House has not dissipated since Democrats took charge of Washington. In fact, with the economy still limping and little getting done inside the corridors of power, voter angst has only increased—the principal reason Democrats are in such trouble with the midterm elections rapidly approaching.
Obama and his followers, such a potent force during the presidential campaign, are no longer the stars of the moment. "The Obama people ran the best campaign I’ve seen in all my life in politics," says Howard Dean. "But they couldn’t translate it into government." Nearly two years after his historic election, what has become of Obama’s famed movement? Where is its leader?
Obama’s movement did not begin on the steps of the old state capitol in Springfield, Illinois; it began in the governor’s mansion in sleepy Montpelier, Vermont. Howard Dean, the five-term governor of one of the country’s tiniest states, entered the Democratic presidential primary in 2003 because he wanted to talk about a balanced budget and healthcare reform. But after he became the first major candidate to denounce the war in Iraq and aggressively challenge the Bush administration, his campaign, quickly and unexpectedly, became much bigger than that—an experiment with a new kind of politics aimed at revitalizing American democracy, reviving the Democratic Party and ending the Republican Party’s electoral dominance.
Dean’s run for the presidency embraced and amplified a few unique notions that profoundly altered modern American politics, namely, that committed volunteers are cheaper and more effective than the same old crew of professional campaign consultants; that small donations in large numbers can do more than large donations in small numbers; that the Internet and new social networking tools can level the playing field for seemingly quixotic candidacies and attract hordes of new people into politics for the first time; and that Democrats needed to compete everywhere (including in the hinterlands of long-forgotten red state America), stand up for some core principles and stick with them. The cause was as much about the means of doing politics as the ends. Dean and his followers fervently believed that the Democratic Party could still be fundamentally reformed, and they focused their activism toward that end. This spontaneous new insurgency—a response to the corporatization and triangulation of the Clinton era—wasn’t about left versus right as much as outside versus in. The soul of the party and the future of politics were suddenly up for grabs. Dean certainly did not intend to become a catalyst for these changes, but that’s where his campaign ended up.
That campaign ended after Dean’s disastrous loss in the 2004 Iowa caucus—punctuated by his world-famous, media-generated "scream"—but a year later, when he became chair of the Democratic Party in a stunning turn of events, he really did help restore party fortunes in all those states he shouted out on that chaotic caucus night. Barack Obama continued that revival three years later, in the midst of an endless primary that everyone originally expected would end with Hillary Clinton’s nomination. So many of those red states, like Indiana and North Carolina and Virginia, long regarded as enemy territory by Democrats, ended up holding the key to the party’s electoral resurrection. Dean saw this trend before nearly anybody, and he got a second chance to do something about it as chair of the DNC.
The Dean campaign provided the manual—albeit a messy, imperfect one—for a bottom-up mass movement, and his fifty-state strategy provided the foundation for electing Democrats across the map in 2006 and 2008. The Obama campaign proved it was willing and able to perfect both of these visionary ideas. In the wake of John the Baptist, Jesus came forth. Some even called Obama "Dean 2.0."
Yet after the election, Obama quickly dispatched the insurgents—Dean chief among them, who was excluded from a plum job—and assembled an administration that looked surprisingly like a third Clinton term. Today the parallels with President Clinton are even eerier; as in 1994, Obama is presiding unevenly over an unwieldy Democratic majority and facing the prospect of an avalanche of losses in his first midterm election.
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Despite locating OFA in the DNC, changing the Democratic Party didn’t rank as Obama’s foremost priority. He had more pressing problems on his plate—not least, digging the country out of its worst economic crisis in decades. In those critical days following the election, OFA opted largely to circumvent the party rather than enhance it. On November 5, 2008, the DNC’s nearly 200 local organizers, the core of Dean’s fifty-state strategy, awoke to the news that their contracts were expiring at the end of the month. The e-mail from headquarters called it a "bitter-sweet moment." When Obama’s DNC reconstituted Dean’s strategy a few months later, funding OFA staffers across the country took priority. Unlike the organizers hired under Dean, who worked to strengthen the party at the state and local level, the new Obama organizers were instructed to focus strictly on helping to pass the president’s legislative agenda, forming a parallel structure to the existing party. "I’m not trying to build a bigger and better Democratic Party," says Colorado OFA director Gabe Lifton-Zoline.
You couldn’t really blame Obama for not wanting to take full ownership of the Democratic Party, given its status as a perennial punch line—the Buffalo Bills of politics. He was following a long line of historical precedent. Republican presidents routinely sought to strengthen their parties, while Democratic presidents tended to ignore them, Northwestern University political scientist Daniel Galvin observes. But the president, Galvin argues in his book Presidential Party Building, neglects his party at his peril. If it atrophies too much, Obama will find himself in a situation similar to that of Clinton following the disastrous ’94 midterms, facing an increasingly hostile Congress and unable to push through the bold legislative agenda he campaigned on.
Democratic Party officials, as much as they want Obama to succeed and see their fates largely determined by his success, point out that they have additional responsibilities, ranging from candidates for governor to county commissioner. That’s why party strategists believe it’s so critical to bring independents, Republicans and first-time Obama supporters into the fold. Reagan Democrats, after all, became Republicans after the 1980 and 1984 campaigns. "There’s probably not a more front-and-center issue for the Democratic Party than that," says Obama pollster Cornell Belcher. "You’d think they’d build infrastructure at the grassroots level within the party to work that very diverse and younger constituency." One former high-ranking member of Obama’s campaign describes OFA as a "massive fucking power grab" that siphons much-needed resources away from the party. (There are some notable exceptions; in Texas, for example, the OFA investment in local organizing is much larger than in recent years. And this past June, the DNC launched a $50 million outreach effort to persuade first-time Obama voters—and register new ones—to go to the polls in the upcoming midterms.)
Dean’s strategy decentralized power away from Washington, but under Obama, Washington once again calls the shots. "The DNC is just not as energized and connected to local activism as it was under Howard Dean," says Margaret Johnson, former Democratic chair in Polk County, North Carolina. After the election, pundits predicted that Obama’s DNC would launch a "fifty-state strategy on steroids," but in some places—especially outside the typical battlegrounds—it feels more like the fifty-state strategy on Ambien.
The state chairs now receive far less money than they did under Dean and are struggling to pay the bills. One chair called the $5,000 monthly stipend the state parties eventually got "money to shut us up." "If we had what we previously had," says Idaho state chair Keith Roark, "we’d be in far better shape." The gains of the fifty-state strategy are by no means permanent, the chairs warn, and can evaporate as quickly as they accumulated. Indeed, in Obama’s first year, the party lost three straight major elections, in states the president had won by six, sixteen and twenty-six points. In Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts, Obama’s "coalition of the ascendant"—blacks, Hispanics, young people—failed to turn out in large numbers for the Democratic candidates. With the midterms a month away, Democrats are struggling to defend vulnerable incumbents across the map.
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?"
"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."
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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.