Obama's people are finding it hard to take his "movement" with them to Washingtonby James Crabtree / February 28, 2009 / Leave a comment
A sterile conference room in an anonymous Chicago skyrise, littered with empty coke cans and packets of biscuits, seemed an inauspicious place to announce plans to change the world. Yet in such a room in 2006 Barack Obama told his most trusted advisers that, yes, he was going to run for president. He was clear on one point, though: this was going to be “a different kind of campaign.”
The differentness of the campaign Obama ran—and the “movement” of millions that joined him—became political folklore long before a ballot had been cast. The trumping of team Clinton, in particular, overturned a generation of conventional wisdom about how politics worked. Previous campaigns relying on idealistic volunteers and new technology, like that of Vermont Governor Howard Dean, tended to lose. But Obama took this basic template, added professionalism and money, and won handily. His combination of clever websites and intensive training camps to help build up a volunteer army was genuinely new.
Commentators and bloggers quickly claimed this campaign model as proof for any number of pet theories, normally about the power of the internet to change politics. Obama, so they tell us, is an “open source president” in an era when “politics is viral,” who ran a campaign embodying “crowd sourcing in action.” Technology gurus, like former Wired journalist Peter Leyden, speak bafflingly of how “Obama is catalysing the paradigm shift in American politics.”
What this all means isn’t obvious, but it seems suspicious. Obama’s campaign was conventional in important respects. He spent more on negative adverts than any previous politician, while his tightly-disciplined media operation never once went off-message. His motto—”no drama Obama”—boasted more of military-style discipline than an easygoing approach.
With the inauguration over, the compatibility problems between a popular campaign movement and the tricky compromises of government are becoming obvious. Obama’s 13m supporters and 3m donors can neither relocate en masse to Washington nor be consulted on every law, while door-knocking alone doesn’t solve most political problems. In short, “movement” into “government” doesn’t go.
Many campaign staffers, however, will fit in nicely. In 1997 only a few dozen Labour party apparatchiks followed Tony Blair into No 10. But thousands of Obama staffers and volunteers will take jobs in his new administration. (Stories of volunteers packing up their homes and driving to DC to find work are too numerous to believe they are all apocryphal.) This cadre of…