The story of Barack Obama’s brilliant grassroots organizing as a candidate is now campaigning legend. But since Election Day, the “what do we do now” question has vexed Obama’s Army. Two million activists and an email list of thirteen million “slacktivists” constitute a potent political force. If Obama only uses these idealists as an amen corner, he will miss a chance to deliver the change he promised and millions seek. President Obama should mobilize his army of supporters to launch a mass movement fostering collective and individual responsibility.
Earlier this month, “Organizing for America,” Obama’s organization reincarnated, arranged 3200 Economic Recovery House Meetings to support Obama’s stimulus package. With Republicans attacking the bill as overloaded with pork, even Obama’s supporters needed reassurance. President Obama recorded a forceful, inspiring, four-minute video, followed by a thirteen minute video with the new Democratic National Chairman. Governor Tim Kaine answered a half dozen questions culled from an impressive 30,000 queries supporters sent about the package.
Mobilizing to support the stimulus was a logical first step. If Obama had failed or even lost too much political capital passing the stimulus, his presidency would have suffered. But becoming the stimulus bill’s public lobby risks making “Organizing for America,” part of the “politics as usual” Obama repudiated. What America really needs is a deeper, more transformational conversation about individual and communal values, using home meetings and social action as platforms to achieve real change. Without being rooted in a renewed American nationalism, bipartisanship will remain a slogan.
“Organizing for America” should learn from the initial success – and eventual failure — of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Blue Eagle” campaign promoting the NRA, the National Recovery Administration. This early New Deal program began flamboyantly. The president invited Americans who followed the NRA’s business, labor or consumer codes to display an iconic blue eagle with the slogan “We Do Our Part.” Suddenly, in the summer and fall of 1933, the image appeared everywhere, on store fronts and front windows, in shops and factories.
The hoopla engaged millions otherwise paralyzed by despair. It confirmed Americans’ impression that Roosevelt was providing a “New Deal.” Alas, all that good will, communal energy, and national vision dissipated quickly. The codes for fixing prices and limiting competition soon had many mocking the NRA as the National Run Around. When the Supreme Court declared the NRA unconstitutional, even Roosevelt was relieved.
The day before Inauguration Day, an estimated one million Americans joined Obama’s national day of service, volunteering for more than 13,000 service projects. At Washington’s Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium thousands assembled 80,000 care packages for American troops. This impressive outpouring, along with the grassroots power of Obama’s Army during the campaign, reflected Team Obama’s talent in tapping Americans’ idealism and nationalism. Millions agree with Obama that President George W. Bush should have mobilized Americans after 9/11, rather than sending us shopping.
Yet the day of service lacked the branding of Roosevelt’s Blue Eagle. Moreover, like the NRA and the Economic Recovery House Meetings, the occasional burst of voluntarism is not enough. One of America’s most famous community organizers used to challenge neighborhood leaders by asking them “where they put their time, energy and money.” Those are “the true tests of what we value,” Barack Obama insisted in Chicago during the 1980s.
“Organizing for America” must be slicker and more profound, better identified as a force calling on Americans to serve their community while transforming all the good will Obama has generated – even after his rough week – into a transformational conversation about how we live our lives and do politics. The times demand more than the brass bands and blue eagles of the 1930s or the house meetings and mass emailings we have seen so far. If President Obama can get millions investing their time, energy and money into fulfilling his vision, with the same enthusiasm they invested into his campaign, his presidency will be monumental, with the occasional hiring lapses and concessions to Congressional pork upstaged by the renewed citizenship covenant he has so far romanticized but not yet designed.
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