Time Magazine, Thursday, Jan. 15, 2009
Obama's Permanent Grass-Roots Campaign
For Kenneth Richardson II of Owings, Md., Barack Obama's election-night victory was not the end but the beginning. "We can't let this go," the 58-year-old father of three remembers thinking. "People feel invested. They feel they can actually do something." So he did. A couple of weeks after the confetti settled, he posted an alert on MyBarackObama.com proposing a new activist group in Calvert County, a rural exurb of Washington where the rolling farmland is dotted by weathered barns and crab shacks. Complete strangers signed up. A retired Air Force pilot, Phil Pfanschmidt, and his wife Joyce, both 71, came to the first meeting in December. So did Chris Melendez, a self-employed art dealer who lives about 30 miles away. Richardson's old motorcycle buddy Al Leandre brought his wife, a public-school teacher, and passed the word to some friends he had met through his government-contracting business. With a few clicks of a mouse, the Owings Grass Roots Group was born.
They were white and black, old and young, middle-class professionals who shared a collective frustration with the state of their country. At least four of the founding 12 had once been registered Republicans. Most had stories of helping the Obama campaign; all had internalized Obama's message of bottom-up, people-powered political change. "For anything that is going on in southern Maryland, Barack Obama personally can have an impact — through us," explained Leandre. (See pictures of Obama on Flickr.)
This sort of thing has been happening quietly all over the country this winter. For the first time in decades, a President will enter office at the spearhead of a social movement he created. The exact size can be measured in various ways. He controls a 13 million-name e-mail list, which is nearly the size of the NRA and the AFL-CIO combined. Three million people have given him money; 2 million have created profiles on Obama's social-networking site. More than 1.2 million volunteered for the campaign, which has trained about 20,000 in the business of community organizing.
But the best measurement of Obama's grass-roots power may still be its unrealized potential. In December, when the Owings group first met, about 4,500 house parties were held around the country, and a total of 550,000 people responded to an online survey asking how they would like to contribute their time and energy over the coming years. At about the same time, nearly 5,000 groups responded to a call from Obama's transition team for reports on the best ways to tackle health-care reform. More recently, some 100,000 people participated in an interactive feature on the transition website Change.gov, which allows people to vote on questions they want Obama to answer. Some popular examples: Will you legalize marijuana? Will you appoint a prosecutor to investigate possible Bush Administration crimes? All this was done with almost no publicity and barely a whisper of encouragement from Obama himself. As a scholar of online politics, Personal Democracy Forum's Micah Sifry, puts it, "I think Obama is sitting on a volcano."
The question for Obama is, Can he harness its power? Obama anchored his presidential ambitions in his background as a bottom-up community organizer and in his belief that two people together are exponentially more powerful than two people alone. "In the last 30 or 40 years, a lot of politics turned into marketing," explains Marshall Ganz, a Harvard professor and community organizer who has worked with Obama. "Marketing is all about selling soup to individuals. It's not about bringing people together." Obama's model, which has made him the envy of a generation of political consultants, focuses both on selling the soup and on giving his supporters the tools to make soup together — for one another. (Watch a video about Obama paraphernalia.)
This formula delivered huge returns during the campaign, and Obama swamped his opponents with vastly superior fundraising and grass-roots organizations. But it has never been tried on a large scale by a sitting President. So Obama's web of supporters and his online organizers must now feel their way into uncharted territory. During the campaign, Richardson, an unemployed customer-service specialist, downloaded phone numbers from the Obama website and then made calls from his home office to nudge voters to the polls. He hasn't heard directly from the Obama organization since, but with the help of the Obama website, Facebook and e-mail, he has created an Obama satellite organization on his own. The Owings group is in business, with a mission statement, the beginnings of a logo and plans to incorporate as a nonprofit.
Richardson's group has signed up overseas supporters and planned a series of community dinners and a potluck in honor of the Inauguration. On a recent NFL-playoff Sunday, 11 members gathered in Richardson's brick-lined den to discuss ways to improve local schools. "When we as a group put a package together to send to Barack Obama, what should we ask for?" Richardson posed the question at the start of the meeting. The answers were varied and thoughtful. Why not encourage high school students to get passports to promote foreign travel? Why not sponsor overseas pen-pal programs via the Internet? Should there be more awards to recognize great teachers?
Though few talk in public about it, a 13 million-man army, with foot soldiers ready to act in key congressional districts, could come in handy if the White House has trouble lining up votes for various bills and proposals that reach Capitol Hill. Obama's army can make a lot of phone calls and send a lot of e-mails — and it has proved it knows how to act fast. Rallying support for legislation is one mission; so is making sure the army is intact — and still writing checks — in a few years, when Obama is likely to seek re-election.
While his supporters seek out ways to stay involved, Obama's team is working to connect with citizens outside politics. Buffy Wicks, who helped run Obama's Missouri campaign, has spent the past couple of months putting together a new website, USAservice.org, designed to capitalize on Obama's call for Americans to volunteer in the days before the Inauguration. Even James Dobson's conservative Focus on the Family, no friend of Obama's campaign, is encouraging members to participate.
Meanwhile, at the transition office, Macon Phillips, 30, the director of new media, has been experimenting with other ways to remake the stodgy White House website. The new transition website invites comments at nearly every turn, with regular video responses from all ranks of Obama's incoming Administration and a promise to collate feedback into reports for policymakers, Cabinet officers, even the President. Citizens can view and comment on briefing papers submitted by the interest groups that have been lobbying Obama ever since he won the election. Most of these interactive devices will be carried over to the Obama White House site. Asked if all this feedback would really reach decision makers, Phillips responded, "I wouldn't enjoy my job if I felt the whole thing was a charade."
As one campaign ends and another begins, Obama will need to broaden his base without disappointing true believers like Richardson. In the 1970s, Richardson graduated from college with a degree in urban studies and hoped to work in the public sector. But his first job, working for then D.C. mayor Walter Washington, was dispiriting. He found himself handing out public-assistance checks to people who were gaming the system, an experience that led him to register as a Republican. Now, he says, he may finally be able to serve as he had always hoped. "I will be 59 in April," he said, "and I have never, ever come across something like this."