Barack Obama does not look like any other American president, but more important, his supporters look different from every other president’s base. They are the most connected national constituency in history.
During the campaign, Obama’s aides relentlessly recruited voters into several networks at a time. More than a million people asked for campaign text messages on their cellphones. Two million joined MyBO, a website fusing social networking with volunteer work, while more than 5 million supported Obama’s profile on social sites like Facebook. Most famously, 13 million voters signed up for regular e-mails, fundraising pitches and other communications. On election day, a staggering 25 percent of Obama voters were already directly linked to him–and one another–through these networks. Campaigns largely dissolve after elections, but this infrastructure remains intact.
Presidents have always needed intermediaries to rally their base, from the press to party machinery. But Obama has a direct line–or several–to his most active supporters. "We’ve never seen anything like this," says Micah Sifry, who runs the Internet politics site TechPresident.com. Obama has "the ability to directly reach millions of people in a very targeted way [and to] activate support district by district." Since the election his aides have been experimenting with how to use the networks, for governance and for postcampaign politicking.
On the governance side, the transition team is recruiting people to monitor transition meetings, pose public questions to the staff and share input on selected policies, starting with healthcare. Twenty thousand people participated in the first user-generated press conference, which allowed the public to write and rank questions. The bailout, civil liberties and marijuana legalization were popular topics. The transition team’s Internet director, Macon Phillips, said the queries "weren’t only ones you’d expect from supporters, which is a good thing." Phillips did Internet outreach for the campaign, but he stressed that the objectives have shifted. "In the campaign we were organizing people. Now it’s more conversational, trying to listen and engage people that weren’t engaged in the campaign."
The political track is more complicated. A few people still gather at the old Chicago campaign headquarters to draft e-mails and plan volunteer events. The e-mail list could have used a break–7,000 messages went out during the campaign–but the focus is on maintaining momentum. E-mails with announcements, videos, events and donation requests keep pouring out of BarackObama.com. But what is BarackObama.com now? So far, it feels like a campaign without an election. In December supporters met at 4,000 house parties and reported back on the top issues discussed. At one gathering in Brooklyn, the twenty middle-aged attendees were upbeat but unclear on the meeting’s purpose. Volunteers posted hundreds of photos from the events on Obama’s Flickr account, featuring diverse and enthusiastic gatherings that ranged from a handful of people to several hundred. Beyond volunteer labor, the postcampaign organization will have a budget and paid staff, according to a senior field operative who spoke at Rootscamp, an organizing conference in Washington. Some aides refer to this operation as "Obama for America 2.0," though the name has not yet stuck, and no one knows exactly what it will do.
Many Obama supporters want the network to turn from electoral politics to lobbying. After the election, half a million activists responded to an e-mail survey about the road ahead. The most popular goal was to help the administration "pass legislation," according to campaign manager David Plouffe. If Obama’s initiatives stall in Congress, these activists will presumably back him instead of their local representatives. Combining the White House bully pulpit with constituent lobbying could have a dramatic effect on Obama’s presidency. Previous presidents have gone over the heads of Congress by appealing to the public, of course, but never with a parallel whip operation targeting representatives in their backyards. If the pressure works, the experiment could even alter the conventional balance of power. After all, citizens typically lobby the legislature for their own policy goals–not on behalf of another branch of government. While George W. Bush boosted executive power by routing around Congress, Obama may fortify executive power by mobilizing citizens to roll right over Congress.
Top-down legislative advocacy, however, is not the only aspiration for members of Obama’s network. The campaign thrived on bottom-up participation, with volunteers taking charge of projects, organizing themselves and sometimes challenging Obama’s positions. "There’s been a lot of hand-wringing about what Obama is going to do with his e-mail list, but that has it a bit backward," says David Dayen, who writes the progressive blog D-Day. "It’s really, What is the list going to do with Obama?" Marshall Ganz, the famed United Farm Workers organizer who advised the Obama and Dean campaigns, also argues that the network should not be treated as a list to be managed. Obama won "through the creation of a movement," Ganz observed in a recent YouTube interview, but that does not mean its members can be directed from Washington. "Can he lead it from the presidency?" Ganz asked. "Probably not."
Yochai Benkler, who wrote the Internet bible The Wealth of Networks, is advocating an empowered civic activism for the Obama era. At a December summit for Internet politics at Harvard, where he and Ganz teach, Benkler warned the Obama staff in attendance to avoid focusing solely on "mobilization for the next battle." Now there is a special opportunity, he stressed, to serve the "core of democracy" by fostering relevant "participatory forums for people to set their own agenda."
This vision is more ambitious than responding to surveys or submitting questions to the administration. To shift presidential priorities, network activists must by definition reach beyond the boundaries of the incumbent agenda. Obama’s supporters will have to decide whether fulfilling the movement sometimes means pushing the president, or if such efforts will always be degraded as "counterproductive" by the narrow metrics of tactical politics. In other words, are any issues bigger than Obama?
"Obama’s technologically networked supporters are unlikely to desert him or pressure him very hard, wanting so much to believe that the ‘change’ mantra will mean something other than swapping Hillary for Condi," predicts John Stauber, a netroots activist and critic. "While Obama became the candidate of choice for most on the left, the fact that he is well to the right of his supporters remains a challenge to his base."
One precedent for more participatory agenda-setting occurred this past summer, when Obama backed Bush’s domestic-spying bill. Supporters used Obama’s social networking portal to protest the move. Thousands of activists discussed the issue through direct e-mails, thanks to the campaign’s tools, and they developed goals together. The protest swiftly became the largest self-organized group on the site at the time. That growth, in turn, drew widespread attention and a direct response from Obama, sans media filter, to his critical supporters. While he did not change his vote, the effort clearly forced a civil liberties argument onto the agenda–a result that formal, funded organizations often fail to achieve. "Traditionally, unless a citizen group convinced the media to cover their events, a candidate or representative wouldn’t necessarily know about them," notes Sam Graham-Felsen, the Obama campaign’s official blogger. Based on visibility alone, Obama’s network can play a significant role in pushing him to address issues beyond the choices presented by the media and formal interest groups.
The protest group’s evolution, however, also shows how hard it is to maintain a decentralized pressure network. The campaign’s top-down networks never stopped growing, but the protest group’s e-mail list has fallen to one-third its original size. About thirty members are organizing a new push for the inauguration, but they have not regained traction with many supporters, blogs or the press. Jon Pincus, a social-network activist and early group leader, believes similar efforts can influence the administration if there are conflicts on core issues like Iraq or torture. "During the campaign these efforts could be centered primarily on MyBarackObama," he said. "But now you’d probably have to work across several other social networks, using MyBO as only one of the nodes in the network-of-networks."
Meanwhile, the self-organized groups that were built to elect Obama are still talking to one another. "A lot of the homemade groups on MyBarackObama are still updating and sending out e-mails about what’s going on," says Kevin Flynn, who worked on the campaign’s blogging team in Chicago. "I still get eight e-mails a day from grassroots groups," he told me in late December. While they were not created for protest, some of these networks could morph into hubs to pressure Obama. Take the student network, one of the largest groups on the site. During the campaign it held 19,633 grassroots events, raised more than $1.7 million and hosted a constant stream of many-to-many communication through more than 170,000 blog entries. As this article went to press, members were posting criticism of Obama for inviting Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at the inauguration.
These networks should not be defined, however, only by whether they take orders or try to give them. Beyond their orientation toward Obama, millions of citizens are now more primed to activate and lead one another. A whopping 10 percent of the survey respondents even said they want to run for office. Now they have a good model for how to do it.