Former Campaign Aide Criticizes Obama on Organizing

The arguments of former loyalists like Graham-Felsen are striking because they not only appeal to the idealism of the Obama campaign, they also press blunt warnings about the president's political survival.
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As Congress enacts President Obama's massive tax cut compromise, one of Obama's campaign aides is going public -- for the first time -- with criticism of the White House's organizing strategy. Sam Graham-Felsen, who was at the center of web and grassroots strategy as chief blogger for the Obama campaign, argues in today's Washington Post that the president has left his best asset on "the sidelines":

Obama [has] a vast network of supporters, instantly reachable through an unprecedented e-mail list of 13 million people. These supporters were not just left-wing activists but a broad coalition that included the young, African Americans, independents and even Republicans -- and they were ready to be mobilized... Yet at seemingly every turn, Obama has chosen to play an inside game. Instead of actively engaging supporters in major legislative battles, Obama has told them to sit tight as he makes compromises behind closed doors.

In other words, Obama keeps going to war without his army.

Graham-Felsen argues that on most big fights -- tax cuts today, health care last year -- the most engaged, passionate and financially generous members of the Obama coalition were either pushed aside, or assigned patronizing, busywork organizing, like thanking members of Congress who were already on board. He's talking about Organizing for America, the 13-million person list from 2008 that was rolled into the DNC. "[The] administration isn't seriously interested in deploying this massive grassroots list -- which was once heralded as a force that could reshape politics as we know it -- to fight for sweeping legislative change," he concludes. While that may sound like a standard critique at this point, it is quite damning (and unusual) coming from one of the architects of Obama's grass-roots strategy.

It's worth recalling that the internet operation on Obama's campaign had fewer partisan politicos than many other teams in headquarters. The videographer had previously worked at CNN; the social network expert came from Facebook; and Graham-Felsen had written for The Nation before going all in for Obama. So their opposing views are a bit more likely to spill out in the open. Similarly, Marshall Ganz, the famed labor organizer and Harvard lecturer who trained Obama staff on organizing, showed his independent streak last month, when he criticized his former colleagues for putting OFA "to sleep," instead of mobilizing meaningful reform. "The president demobilized the widest, deepest and most effective grass-roots organization ever built to support a Democratic president," he wrote in the Los Angeles Times.

Now, even if the White House doesn't care about the merits of organizing, or its prospect for advancing better policies in Washington, the degradation of Obama's supporter network could endanger his reelection. That's Graham-Felsen's closing argument. It bucks the current thinking of the Washington media, of course, where The Village is toasting Obama for his savvy caving. In fact, right alongside Graham-Felsen's op-ed, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer lauds Obama as "the new comeback kid" -- even predicting that "historians will mark his comeback as beginning on Dec. 6, the day of the Great Tax Cut Deal of 2010." (We can keep an eye on that.) Graham-Felsen disagrees:

Obama needs this list in 2012 [when he] will likely need to raise far more than $500 million from the grass roots to be competitive... If he continues to play politics as usual, Obama risks alienating not just the left but anyone who believed in the promise of bringing change to Washington.

That is probably the most confounding part. It is easier to make deals with a few people in secret, instead of holding transparent negotiations in public, and it is easier to work within Washington's narrow, antiquated rules than mobilizing a massive, unpredictable movement to fundamentally reform a broken system. Those are the temptations for the White House. Yet even as the midterms fade into the rearview mirror, it often seems like Obama's aides are in denial about the political costs of these strategies. The arguments of former loyalists like Graham-Felsen and Ganz are striking because they not only appeal to the idealism or "promises" of the Obama campaign, they also press blunt warnings about the president's political survival. Does it get through to the White House? One suspects that if the warnings were heeded in private, they would probably not be going public.

Ari Melber writes for The Nation, where this post first appeared. Ari Melber on Facebook.

Further reading:

A DailyKos diary about the op-ed drew over 500 comments before noon on Friday, making it one of the most discussed items on the site (a popular liberal blog).

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