Obama’s army missing in action

Where is Obama’s army?

As the healthcare debate was accelerating this summer, the president sent an e-mail message to his followers, saying, “This is the moment our movement was built for.” But so far, Obama’s forces have failed to seize that moment. Governing turns out to be a lot harder than campaigning.

Even more frustrating to the White House, opponents of healthcare reform are utilizing many of the same tools and tactics, from blast e-mails to viral videos, that Obama employed so effectively last year.

The Internet is most powerful as an organizing instrument when it engages and energizes people behind a clear message and a well-defined goal. Last year, Obama’s mantra was “change,” and his goal was an electoral victory. This year, his opponents are the ones with a one-word slogan – “no” – and a sharply focused cause: Stop the president.

Team Obama came out of the election with 13 million e-mail addresses and an enormous reservoir of goodwill. The political operation was renamed Organizing for America and housed at the Democratic National Committee, where it remains a huge potential asset. But Obama’s first seven months in office have revealed the problems and limits of transforming a campaign apparatus into a legislative engine.



For one thing, Obama staffers were appalled last January when they discovered that government-issue computers and software lagged far behind their state-of-the-art campaign equipment. For another, campaign officials had given their new-media team far more resources, status and freedom than a comparable unit established in the West Wing. (About 80 staffers worked on new media during the election, while only a dozen were assigned that task in the White House.)

More seriously, the Internet culture is well suited to a campaign because it prizes spontaneity, risk-taking and bottom-up enterprise. Once in the White House, Team Obama became a more timid, top-down operation, in part because the stakes were so much higher and the scrutiny so much tighter.

One incident illustrates this point. When opponents started spreading distortions about the Obama health plan, Macon Phillips, Obama’s director of new media, sent supporters an e-mail, urging them to report “fishy” claims to the White House Web site. Opponents immediately accused the administration of compiling an “enemies list” and stifling free speech, and the initiative was quietly shelved.

Organizing for America has been thwarted by a series of problems, starting with battle fatigue. A New York Times report from Iowa headlined “Health Debate Fails to Ignite Obama’s Web” quoted one volunteer as saying, “The enthusiasm is not there like it was a year ago. Most people, when they get to Nov. 5, put their political hat away, and it doesn’t come out for three years.”

Obama’s candidacy was a history-making, life-changing moment that’s very hard to duplicate. As Candice Davies, an Obama organizer in Cary, N.C., told the Los Angeles Times, “Obama’s sexy, he was hot, and everybody wanted a piece of that. Now, people are going to have to work for something that is not quite as slick or sexy.”

Not as sexy or as simple. Last year, Obama asked his followers to do one thing – elect him president – on a certain date, the first Tuesday in November. Today, Obama’s target keeps shifting. He has not even proposed his own healthcare plan, there is no test vote or decision point to aim at, and Democrats (let alone Republicans) cannot agree on the main elements of a bill.

Moreover, in a recent poll conducted by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 86 percent of Americans rated their own health care as good to excellent. The president tries to rally his troops by arguing that the “status quo” is unsustainable, but many of his own supporters don’t share his doubts or determination. No wonder “the enthusiasm is not there like it was a year ago.”

In fact, a lot of the enthusiasm is on the other side. Last year, Obama was David, and this year, he’s Goliath. The opponents of healthcare reform are the guerrilla fighters, connecting with each other through the Internet, protesting at town-hall meetings, creating videos documenting their anger, and spreading them virally through cyberspace.

Passing legislation might not be as sexy as winning an election, but Obama still has a strong case to make. And once congressional leaders end their divisions, draft a final bill, and set a vote, the president’s supporters could finally be energized to take the field of battle. But so far, they have been missing in action.

Cokie Roberts’ latest book is “Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation” (William Morrow, 2008). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be reached at stevecokie@gmail.com.

Copyright 2009, Steven and Cokie Roberts.

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