The Obama “Grassroots” Myth Exposed

At, Micah Sifry explores the vast contrast between the carefully crafted “hope and change” media image of the 2008 Obama presidential campaign, and the stunningly different actual goals and strategies employed by the high-level members of Obama’s inner circle of advisers and campaign officials.

A sample:

The truth is that Obama was never nearly as free of dependence on big money donors as the reporting suggested, nor was his movement as bottom-up or people-centric as his marketing implied. And this is the big story of 2009, if you ask me, the meta-story of what did, and didn’t happen, in the first year of Obama’s administration. The people who voted for him weren’t organized in any kind of new or powerful way, and the special interests–banks, energy companies, health interests, car-makers, the military-industrial complex–sat first at the table and wrote the menu. Myth met reality, and came up wanting.

The scathing continues throughout this lengthy piece, and is centered around two facets of the Obama campaign that were apparent very early on to those of us who were actually paying attention — first, the Obama campaign’s crucial early donations, the money that got the campaign off the ground and paid for its initial development, was mostly raised in the form of large donations tied directly to powerful individuals and special interests; and second, the supposedly indispensable “grassroots” aspect of the Obama campaign was really seen by top campaign officials as nothing more than a gigantic list-building effort.

In other words, Obama’s presidential campaign was really nothing more than traditional top-down, special interest-driven politics as usual, controlled by a small group of power brokers, yet disguised as a grassroots movement. The power of a grassroots image was recognized and exploited early-on by Obama campaign manager David Plouffe as a strategy for contrasting the relatively unknown Obama to his experienced Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton. Plouffe’s portrayal of Hillary (and later on, John McCain) as DC power brokers controlled by special interests, as opposed to the hopey-changey everyman Obama, surely ranks as one of the most brilliant campaign strategies in recent memory.

Unfortunately, once they moved into the White House, Team Obama and its amateur leader did not suffer setbacks very well. As their true colors began to emerge through their frequent and continued use of old school Chicago-style power and intimidation tactics, more and more people have begun to take note of the deep ties between the Obama Administration and Wall Street, and the general level of incompetence exhibited by Administration officials.

Eventually, there comes a time when most everyone recognizes that the emperor is naked. Or in the case of Barack Obama, clothed in Astroturf and special interest money, and very little else.

ADDED 01-04-10: Micah Sifry just published a response to this piece, in which he outlines his vision of what an appropriate response from Team Obama to its grassroots organizations should have looked like, after 2008 election:

The problem, I think, is that Obama didn’t really believe in having an outside strategy, or at least not one that he completely controlled. During the campaign he did everything he could to bottle up anyone who might offer an outside strategy–which made a certain sense in presidential campaign terms (527s and independent expenditure groups often end up wasting resources and working at odds with a campaign’s priorities) …

How could they have addressed the problem of local OFA groups wanting to go their own way, without embarrassing the White House if their demands strayed from the message emanating from the Oval Office? They could have given those local groups a choice (rather than an edict): “If you want funding and staff support from the DNC, accept policy direction from us. If you want to organize on your own, you’re on your own.” That would have led to a situation where some volunteers would have chosen to affiliate with the DNC (and heck, doesn’t the Democratic party want more local chapters–obviously that question is complicated by local politics), and some would have said, we’d rather be independent.

… Instead, right now you have David Plouffe, Mitch Stewart, Jeremy Bird, Natalie Foster et al–people I respect for their hard work–trying to command and control a volunteer movement. That can only work if the base is really motivated, and it obviously isn’t working very well now.

I think the Republicans will encounter similar problems if they attempt to integrate Tea Party organizations into their 2010 campaign strategy, and then control the Tea Party groups in a top-down command fashion. Republicans, are you paying attention?

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