Sunday, December 14, 2008

Obama for America 2.0: Change is coming

Or is it? Yesterday I attended one of the 4200 or so post-election meetings pulled together by the Obama campaign. I came away thrilled with the enthusiasm so many folks share about staying active in some way -- and with many questions. I'm sure I'm not alone in the latter; very likely the hard working organizers who put the event together are mulling their own questions.

Called by San Francisco Volunteers for Obama, this was no cozy little house meeting. Something like 100 people crowded a large hall loaned by SEIU Local 1021. Like others among the inevitably small sample of Obama events I saw in San Francisco, Reno and Denver, this one was well more than half female, predominantly white, with a small and visible minority of people of color, notably African Americans.

Organizer Tara Schubert called us to order. Happily, like the campaign as a whole, this was an efficient meeting with a clear agenda. The plan was share what San Francisco and California volunteers accomplished, break into small groups in which we talked about what we hoped to see from the Obama administration, bring together and rank (as much as possible) what the small groups thought were priorities, and then plan an activity in service to our communities to take place before the inauguration. All this was to be done in two hours -- and we stuck to the time! Gotta love it.

San Francisco leaders shared some numbers -- 10 million calls from California between August and Election Day; 300000 calls from San Francisco during the GOTV period; 110,000 new registrations in Nevada with help from California; and all with only 12 paid staff in the Golden State.

London Breed reported what it had been like for a Californian to go work in Ohio. She was stunned by what she saw:

"They allow people to live in places that look like they should be condemned. We're sure lucky to live in California.

"We met people who just didn't believe their vote matter. But we visited them so many times, they just gave up and invited us in; they finally wanted to vote."

I did have to wonder whether she has ever canvassed in parts of Oakland.

Then we broke into small groups to talk about what issues we cared about.

Everyone got a chance to be heard.

Scribes recorded what people cared about.

A few comments on this process: at least in my group, people found describing what they might want challenging. Hardly anyone offered any specifics that had policy meanings. Instead they named buzzwords like "global warming" or "healthcare" rather than "reducing CO2 emissions" or perhaps "universal health insurance" or "a single payer health system." In this, volunteers are probably just like the electorate at large: they want the government to fix what they perceive as problems -- they count on leaders to know how. This is fine, if people accurately perceive what are the nation's most important problems and if leaders are choosing good solutions. It is a big problem with democratic governance if those two qualifications are not met, as I would argue they have not been in recent memory.

In my group, I suggested that the Obama administration should work to reinforce the structural props of a progressive democracy -- and that one of those would be enacting the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) that would make it easier for workers to organize unions without being bullied by employers. This was received in a friendly manner -- but it was clear that it had no resonance with the people in my group. The idea that workers might need unions and that unions made for progressive voting just wasn't present for these Obama volunteers. A friend in a different group had the same experience when offering the same suggestion.

I found the absence of consciousness around this issue the more strange because we had been welcomed to the hall by SEIU organizer Margot Reed who had made an explicit pitch for support for EFCA.

Folks' indifference to unions confirmed what I also observed on the Colorado campaign: an extraordinary percentage of Obama volunteers were/are middle class people, politically active for the first time, with the kind of skills that make them successes in their jobs and which, given free reign to achieve campaign goals, make for astonishing creativity. What they don't have is very developed political ideas. Will they learn more about the hard policy choices facing their country under an Obama administration? Time will tell. One of the best things about Obama is that, because his is a master of verbal communication, he tries to explain issues to people. That's fine as long as the issues and frames he chooses don't exclude important choices people might prefer. We'll see.

After the small groups, the whole returned to see where our priorities had fallen. The photo above is the resulting visual representation of the result. A quick look points up what for me and several others I spoke with was the great fault of the meeting: organizers had people express their concerns within the messaging categories of the campaign. But this emphatically did not catch some of the energy in the room.

Perhaps most importantly, if you wanted to end the Iraq war, your concern was categorized as "National Security." Now that form of flipping the argument is (marginally) okay as a tactic in a campaign in which a Democrat has to reassure sporadic voters that he is tough enough to protect the country. But the kind of people who work for Obama deserve more plain speaking: we want out of Iraq. In San Francisco, many of us want a lot more than that -- slashing the military budget and turning the cash to domestic needs, for example.

Likewise many of us don't want "energy independence" (a myth) so much as "to stick it to the oil polluters." But the way the discussion was structured precluded bringing those opinions out.

Perhaps most telling was this result (pictured) of the discussions: the meeting simply blanked on the concerns of the low wage working class with poverty and immigration. Now we do know that even in this very special year these folks don't vote much. So U.S. politicians have usually been able to take them for granted. But I am very concerned by a movement in which they are pushed to the edge of awareness, barely represented at all. That won't work.
At the end of our meeting, we were given a hand out which listed the goals reached by a meeting of Obama organizers from around the country that had been held in Chicago. Here's the list, apparently what is expected to come out of all this.

1. Organize support for legislation at all levels of government. This includes pushing President Obama's agenda and it also includes organizing around state and local laws/initiatives.

2. Build grassroots electoral strength at all levels, and train and develop grassroots leaders to organize and serve in their communities.

3. Be an organ of two-way communication between the White House and the grassroots, so that each knows and repons to the priorities of the other.

4. Launch a national, grassroots-driven renewal of civic engagement, again at both the local and national levels.

Fine with me -- but the question remains open, for what ends? I intend to stay involved in this process, and to stay hopeful. But I also intend to keep asking questions.

To find out for yourself what's going on, visit My Barack Obama.


naomi dagen bloom said...

Wonderful post. I'm impressed with the details--even when saddened. The kind of thing the Obama campaign did/is trying to contine all very new to most people.

The organization and effort were impressive, now the struggle, as you point out, is how participants narrow done the big picture to doable issues. Were follow-up meetings scheduled?

I'm interested in attending a meeting of this sort in Portland, Oregon over the next couple of weeks. Thanks for posting this.

donna said...

I had 32 people here at my home, and that matches pretty closely to what we ended up discussing -- health care by far the largest group, then energy and civil rights. I was a bit disappointed more weren't interested in the economy, which is my big issue, but then I'm an economics geek.