Moving pains

Obama's people are finding it hard to take his "movement" with them to Washington
February 28, 2009

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 Obamaniks will want to do things differently.

But while junior jobs are being doled out to true believers, the big jobs have been carved up between old Clinton-era hands and established Washington insiders. Few such people show the slightest interest in a new style of "bottom-up" government. Indeed, against the backdrop of the financial crisis, a premium has been put on steady, traditional decision making.

And even if some workers do seem to be getting a slice of the pie, trying to find a way to hold the interest of millions of volunteers (let alone involve them in important decisions) is already proving an immense headache for Obama's team. Managing the expectations and activities of such a group isn't easy. Just ask pint-size Texan Ross Perot, who signed up 2m supporters to join his post-election "movement," United We Stand America, in 1992. It raised tens of millions of dollars, but achieved little. Attempting to avoid this fate, Obama first set up a website,, and held a few (widely derided) online debates. Seemingly out of ideas, the campaign reverted to asking people to organise yet more house parties. On the Saturday before his inauguration, Obama announced "Organising for America"—a new but vague outfit to keep people involved. Eager beaver volunteers, meanwhile, set up websites like

The Los Angeles Times reported a top secret weekend meeting in December, in which Obama's staff tried to figure out what to do with the movement that insists on following them around. As commentator Micah Sifry noted at the time, the covert gathering cemented a view that the move to what some call OFA II—or Obama for America II—has been a "top-down, one-way affair."

Yet Obama wasn't misrepresented in his desire to do things differently. In particular, he is on record as saying he wanted to build his campaign—and his administration—from the "bottom up"; by following the lessons of his time as a community organiser in Chicago. But it is here that both Obama's technophile admirers and liberal backers misunderstand him. For him, the term "bottom up" doesn't mean bloggers, coders or geeks. Instead, it means following the "organising" theories of thinkers like Saul Alinsky, an intellectual and writer who also organised in the backstreets and communities of Chicago in the 1930s.

Alinsky's method of organising—copied by other thinkers such as Harvard academic Marshall Ganz—was central to the Obama team's approach to training staff and enthusing volunteers. Alinsky's most famous book, Rules for Radicals, include some fiery rhetoric, but underneath his ideas are oddly moderate, arguing that "any revolutionary change must be preceded by a passive, affirmative, non-challenging attitude toward change among the mass of our people." In other words, avoiding fights and backlashes is the crucial step to achieving what you want.

Obama clearly believes this. It's why he goes to such extraordinary lengths to reach out to opposing groups—like wasting $300bn on largely ineffective tax cuts as part of his bailout package, simply to buy Republican goodwill. But his most ardent liberal admirers, many about to pocket their first government pay cheque, still want America's 44th president to unleash his volunteers to ram through his agenda. They talk of setting up powerful new campaigning groups to argue for his priorities—of over-running the Republicans and pushing through a truly liberal programme.

Such a combative, Bush-era approach is unlikely. It goes against the theory of change that Obama believes in, one concerned with the rearguard as much as the vanguard. His most fervent admirers may ultimately be doubly disappointed. Obama can't bring his movement into the corridors of American power. And even if he could, his supporters would find his moderation less moving than they had hoped.