Monday, December 29, 2008

Obama for America 2.0?

From The Nation:

Barack Obama does not look like any other American president, but more important, his supporters look different from every other president's base. They are the most connected national constituency in history.


Presidents have always needed intermediaries to rally their base, from the press to party machinery. But Obama has a direct line--or several--to his most active supporters. "We've never seen anything like this," says Micah Sifry, who runs the Internet politics site Obama has "the ability to directly reach millions of people in a very targeted way [and to] activate support district by district." Since the election his aides have been experimenting with how to use the networks, for governance and for postcampaign politicking.

On the governance side, the transition team is recruiting people to monitor transition meetings, pose public questions to the staff and share input on selected policies, starting with healthcare. Twenty thousand people participated in the first user-generated press conference, which allowed the public to write and rank questions. The bailout, civil liberties and marijuana legalization were popular topics. The transition team's Internet director, Macon Phillips, said the queries "weren't only ones you'd expect from supporters, which is a good thing." Phillips did Internet outreach for the campaign, but he stressed that the objectives have shifted. "In the campaign we were organizing people. Now it's more conversational, trying to listen and engage people that weren't engaged in the campaign."


The campaign thrived on bottom-up participation, with volunteers taking charge of projects, organizing themselves and sometimes challenging Obama's positions. "There's been a lot of hand-wringing about what Obama is going to do with his e-mail list, but that has it a bit backward," says David Dayen, who writes the progressive blog D-Day. "It's really, What is the list going to do with Obama?" Marshall Ganz, the famed United Farm Workers organizer who advised the Obama and Dean campaigns, also argues that the network should not be treated as a list to be managed. Obama won "through the creation of a movement," Ganz observed in a recent YouTube interview, but that does not mean its members can be directed from Washington. "Can he lead it from the presidency?" Ganz asked. "Probably not."

Yochai Benkler, who wrote the Internet bible The Wealth of Networks, is advocating an empowered civic activism for the Obama era. At a December summit for Internet politics at Harvard, where he and Ganz teach, Benkler warned the Obama staff in attendance to avoid focusing solely on "mobilization for the next battle." Now there is a special opportunity, he stressed, to serve the "core of democracy" by fostering relevant "participatory forums for people to set their own agenda."

This vision is more ambitious than responding to surveys or submitting questions to the administration. To shift presidential priorities, network activists must by definition reach beyond the boundaries of the incumbent agenda. Obama's supporters will have to decide whether fulfilling the movement sometimes means pushing the president, or if such efforts will always be degraded as "counterproductive" by the narrow metrics of tactical politics. In other words, are any issues bigger than Obama?

Read the rest here.

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