The latest miniature controversy in the presidential campaign actually touches on an important idea.
“You can’t change Washington from the inside.”
That’s what Barack Obama said he learned as president, when questioned at a forum on Thursday.
Mitt Romney seized on the remarks, saying Obama has surrendered to the forces of Washington. Romney’s aides are eager to cast Obama in his own “YouTube moment,” naturally, and challenge his commitment to “change.”
Obama is correct, of course, that fundamental reform and social change is not usually hatched by Washington insiders. That is not a controversial view. It’s the premise animating grassroots conservative activism from Grover Norquist to the Tea Party, which primaries Republicans who represent the 2-0-2 for too long.
You can’t really understand Obama’s relationship to the inside game, however, without digging into the weeds of his unusual experiment with a grassroots, outside game: the 2009 creation of Organizing for America (OFA), which was designed to extend his massive field army from the last campaign into a governing force.
That unusual effort never got much attention from political and media leaders, because fieldwork is considered boring. And it probably won’t get much attention now, even though Obama’s talk about how the outside game works suggests a key misperception about his first term. So while he was right about change, his follow-up explanation was puzzling. "You can only change it from the outside,” he added, “that’s how the big accomplishments like healthcare got done…because we mobilized the American people to speak out.… So, something that I’d really like to concentrate on in my second term is being in a much more constant conversation with the American people so they can help move some of these issues forward.”
News readers will recall that is simply not how healthcare was enacted. There was no mass mobilization or pressure on swing votes in Congress. The Washington Post‘s Ezra Klein, who reported on the process at the time, found Obama’s depiction “absurd.” He has a different memory:
The health-care process…was a firmly “inside game” strategy. There were backroom deals with most every major interest group and every swing legislator. There was the “cornhusker kickback” and the “Louisiana purchase.” There was a multi-month period during which the entire process ground to a halt so Senate Finance chair Max Baucus could negotiate with five of his colleagues in a room that no members of the press or public were allowed into.