As Obama and the Democrats attempt to save their governing majority this fall, a majority that an unprecedented number of Americans helped them to build, I felt compelled to address my version of what happened to our movement for Change. The fact that the movement is not clearly pushing behind Obama at this moment in time, for those of us who worked on the campaign, is essentially the elephant in the room. It has been brought up to the president directly at backyard gatherings and town hall meetings and it has certainly been discussed behind closed doors for some of us, since election day. Something indeed happened here and in order to restore it, we must start examining it out in the open.
I worked in Obama's Chicago headquarters in the New Media department on his in-house video team. We got a lot of attention for what we did and looking back now, I know it was deserved. I came to the campaign after working for a decade as an objective journalist and that is how I'm going to approach this story. Before Obama, I had never endorsed a candidate. I believed that objectivity was both honorable and necessary as a journalist if you were to be trusted by all sides -- but somehow in July of 2008, for the first time in my life I believed in something so strongly I found myself quitting my paying job and cushy life in San Francisco during uncertain economic times and driving to Chicago in 3 days. I was lucky to have been invited and like many others I did want to participate in this historic moment--but also felt like there was a good chance Obama might not win, with the alternative taking our country over a cliff and I had to do more than something- everything.
Over the past two years, like many who disrupted their lives for this campaign, my life is still all over the place -- literally, my possessions can be found in San Francisco, LA, Brooklyn, Atlanta, Omaha Toledo and of course, Washington, DC -- as I have been trying in my own ways to carry out some of the vision we felt we had. I'm not complaining. Just ask anyone whose couch I've slept on in the last two years--I feel honored to be in this position and that's what still propels me when I'd like to be home already.
Let me first start off by saying that I won't name any names here. What happened was not the work of one person, or a group of people, or even an ideology. At least, I don't think that it was, even if some people actually believe the movement died at the stroke of a few purposeful hands (which some do). The focus on names and blames really doesn't serve the purpose of truly understanding what happened here- which is my goal. Further, while I'm sure I'm going to make enemies by writing this--I truly love all the people I worked with on the New Media team and would have each and everyone one of their backs in a knife fight.
What Was This New Media?
Here's why. While working in Chicago New Media--the much ballyhooed, start-up technology arm of the Obama campaign, may not have been one of the happiest times of my life--I have never and possibly may never be part of something that worked so well again. The whole actually was greater than the sum of our parts--'online' wasn't a mystery there--we actually made the internet work on all its cylinders. Not only was every single person well-intentioned and giving their all towards something greater than themselves, there was raw genius too--the results were unquestionable. And herding that amount of talent into the same room at sub-market prices would be very hard to do again--if ever.
Lets start with the brass tacks shall we? In order to have a successful new media campaign, or lets say any sort of movement towards anything you find in life, it can be boiled down to two very basic ingredients:
- Compelling Energy -- a genuine purpose, a reason to join, an almost absolute truth that everyone seems to agree on as to why they are getting involved. This is your life's blood in any movement big or small and you can't fake it.
- Organization - Energy alone won't do it -- but if you can catch that energy and organize it in the right direction -- you've not only got yourself a movement, in electoral politics, you have something that is really hard to beat. It's real, it's powered, its on every street corner and it's got a direction. Ut-oh!
The intricate steps that lead up to those very basic things are much more complicated. There are questions to be asked "Where is this energy located?" "What can I say to direct it?" & "Where should it inevitably go?" -- and there are decisions to be made. While Obama himself garnered some natural gravitas, we were the nerds, artists and filmmakers who organized it so millions more could join the ride.
The Obama New Media team did more than raise record amounts of money and channel an unprecedented effort to get out the vote for a black man with a funny name -- somehow, we seemed to make really good decisions with the energy we had. If we had no energy, we would have had no movement -- but without all the organization to channel that energy -- I think we are all confident, not only would Barack Obama not have been elected president, he may not have even gotten the nomination.
We had built up a list of supporters through BarrackObama.com and all of the neighbor to neighbor door knocking that was supposed to be generationally game changing(and it still probably is). Approximately 1 in every 100 people in the US population donated to the campaign through our site -- often in small denominations. For once in MY LIFE, everyone surrounding me, 24 hours a day, felt like they were part of something greater than themselves and I quite honestly wanted to continue to be part of that community and the world Obama had envisioned. I wasn't cynical anymore.
Our campaign tried its best to take the high road -- the 'war room' era of the attack ads was crying its death knell -- in place of the Obama era which was one of going home, doing your homework, going block by block and nerding the fucker out.
So where did all of this energy go?
The point of departure--and I doubt anyone's left who honestly thinks the energy is still here at those levels--differs depending on who you talk to and their perspective.
Wednesday, November 5th : Stick With Me
For me, you have to look back to the rest of the week after we won the campaign. The day after the election at 11AM after we partied most of the night, we all gathered at the office after we were told Obama might be there in person -- he wasn't. He did call in and genuinely thanked us for our efforts. I think I lost count of how many times he said he wanted to take us all with him and it was a nationwide call. He directed specific people to make sure we all had a place to go -- and by the end of the day, those who were paid received several emails explaining how to apply to get jobs inside the administration.
Meanwhile, and this had been happening for some time already -- private meetings were being held throughout the offices. Some folks were quietly already on their way to Washington -- while most of us still had hangovers. This made sense, we were soon to be in charge of the government and there was a lot of work to do.
I find it incredibly hard to believe that people forget just how bad things were in November of 2008. People quite frankly were wondering what might come after capitalism. We had a new president who had to prove that he was in control of the situation. This theme would echo throughout the coming months and is one that I firmly believed in and still do. There was hope and change -- and then there were bread lines. Making sure the lights were still on in the US was the first priority.
One group which was largely left off the email list for jobs were our volunteers coast to coast, and in our office. They were largely the FORCE behind our efforts and many of them were older and more experienced than some of those who were paid, but they just came anyway and dealt with it. All of them deserved pay, but despite our fundraising totals, we had huge costs running a 50 state campaign and there wasn't that much to go around. There were situations were people just left what they were doing and came -- putting it all on their credit cards. I made about $200 a week -- not much -- but compared to these people, I was living rich. One of my friends called this the "all out insanity of the moment", evidence that our times had pushed people that far -- and we would not have Barrack Obama as president without them. They were our heart and soul.
Thursday, November 6: Grab Your Piece of History
By Thursday, we all showed up to the office, trying to act like there was something to do, but there really wasn't. Sure, there was stuff to organize for posterity and for the 2012 re-election, but who really wanted to do that? This day was marked with mad-dash mobs raiding the stashes of historic posters that people would find behind desks.
Meanwhile, the back door meetings continued -- while a lot of us who were still exhausted and stunned from what had just happened were trying to figure out what was going to happen next. One thing's for sure, the mood had changed. We were all in it together, now there was a sense that everyone was in it for themselves. People kept their cards close to their chest, if they weren't 'tapped' to go to the transition, they didn't want to talk about it. If they were, they didn't want to talk about it either because who knows -- someone might steal it from them.
It was at this point that I had decided I needed to sleep for a couple of years and maybe going into government just wasn't for me. It started to feel less like a cause and more like the other awfully competitive places I've had worked at throughout my twenties that I couldn't stomach having anything to do with anymore. In a sense, it started to get a little ugly.
Friday, November 7: The Cold Streets of Chicago
This was our last day in the Chicago offices. In what had been our world for who knows how long at this point -- the posters were coming down and things were starting to get taken apart. Towards the end of the day...after one last teary eyed and hug filed FIRED UP and READY TO GO chant, led by one of our leaders and another brief speech about our futures in general, the last of us were escorted out by security with our little boxes of trinkets -- one guy commented that it felt like the day Bear Stearns closed.
A few of us, not knowing what to do next -- in life, met at Starbucks across the street on that snowy day -- trying to protect our historic posters and signs from the weather. My friend Max gave one of his as a tip to our barista -- that's the kind of guy he is. After 30 minutes of getting there -- we all looked at each other, didn't have much more to say and scrammed -- I later saw Schenectady, NY and realized this was probably one of the most depressing days of my entire life.
What was happening here -- is the deconstruction of the one thing that was most impressive about the Barrack Obama campaign -- how accessible it felt to just about anyone who wanted to be a part of it. N that we actually had to govern, the masses were quietly and painfully directionless -- unlike election night, it was cold outside too.
The Transition: Winter of Discontent
When I returned back to my hometown of Toledo, OH, I can recall sitting in my parents house thinking about just how frigid that November and December was. If there's one thing Toledo does better than most places it's a recession -- that place has been going out of business since before I was born. Things were downright scary -- except for one thing -- Obama had somehow won the presidency. A new day would dawn in January.
Everyone I knew believed it even if they didn't vote for the guy. A new day did dawn, but unfortunately, all the way up to the inauguration no one knew who was in charge of that valuable list of supporters we had compiled -- who had the keys to BarackObama.com? We wanted to continue on doing what we were doing -- people had been doing this job for years, mind you -- some straight out of college knew of nothing else -- but no one was in charge of the list. We were waiting for a signal.
There were some ad hoc meetings, where different groups tried to figure out how to keep the momentum alive on BarackObama.com with ideas ranging from regular e-town hall meetings to house parties centered around educating people on different types of legislation -- to at least keep up a status quo, but not much came from them because who was in charge ? This was the first time a lot of other people started to know something was wrong, but since so many were still trying hard to be a part of the movement or the government no one felt comfortable saying anything out loud. In what really appeared to be a power vacuum, there was no strong voice who spoke out about what was happening to the most active members in our movement -- most likely because we were all unemployed and thought someone might be on it.
For the rest of the country, you may not have noticed anything was wrong until August of 2009 -- that's when crazy people started ambushing town hall meetings on health care spreading lies and deafening out reason on one of the most important legislative matters of our time.
We were getting out-organized by AM-talk radio when a year ago we had people with iPhone applications reminding people about supporting gatherings in their immediate areas. Obama was criticized for giving too many speeches at this point that weren't really having much of an effect on things. From my point of view, a man who a year earlier had spoke before record mobs, stood alone. Hypothetical Death panels were losing out to the real life pre-existing condition firing squads from which no matter what party you vote for, there's not a person in this country who doesn't know someone who's been affected. More on that later...
Inauguration: Which Ball You Going To?
The inauguration of Barrack Obama is something I will never forget. In terms of the movement and the New Media department, some more things were starting to take form. First, there were the tickets to the inauguration and the concern about whether or not we'd even be invited to get them. I decided I was going no matter what -- and then a few weeks beforehand an email did come. Unfortunately, once again, the interns/volunteers were left out. Some of us helped as much as we could to get as many tickets out to as many people we knew as possible, but mostly to the ceremony itself -- there just weren't many extras.
For those of us on the purple line of doom who had tickets -- well that's another story. Most of the people in that line didn't get in at all after being misinformed the entire morning about a clogged entrance. Some of us got a tip about a secret entrance with no line -- this is the most accurate metaphor I've got about how our government actually operates. There's always a way in, but the obvious one is almost always clogged and filled with people outside sending you in the wrong directions.
The ticket disbursement policy and the inaugural balls attended by the newcomers with fame and fortune started to reinforce the feeling that the government was as it had always been. Separate. Guarded. You needed friends to 'get in'. That wasn't something that would have been written about the campaign.
Behind the scenes, there were quite a few people who had not yet received a call from anyone or really had solid interview prospects, but they moved to DC anyway on a HOPE, a dream and in a lot of cases, fumes in their bank accounts. Some of them even shared apartments together. Since our financial markets were in shambles, people were coming from everywhere to DC because quite frankly the lights were still on there. Finding a reasonable apartment, let alone a couch to sleep on for a couple of weeks was almost impossible.
Change Comes to Washington, Gets Stuck
I watched as many of my new media comrades fanned out all over town, taking whatever jobs they could get underneath the established Washington mentality. Yes, many were in their early 20s -- but despite the fact that they had been part of something that truly worked, not only in politics but also on the internet as whole, their ideas were often sidelined because they didn't get approval.
Yes -- like most of established Washington, we did have approvals and bosses on the Obama campaign--and sometimes we disagreed, but for the most part, we felt a sense of autonomy and responsibility to carry out the message to the best of our abilities. Most of the time, they trusted us to know how to do what we knew how to do. And when they did, you probably noticed because something resonated with you and it was often something you hadn't quite seen before. It just doesn't work this way inside the beltway, and the creatures who live their pride themselves on making you fit their mold because no matter what party their with, they're committed to maintaining this status quo.
Worst of all -- my fellow Obamers knew all of this damn well, but were all afraid to say anything about it. DC is a very small town. I'll give you one example. Shortly after the campaign, I founded my own new media production firm with a civic minded mission to proliferate what we had learned on the campaign to whomever needed it. Early on when we were trying to share what we had learned from the campaign, we offered to provide consultation, free of charge if needed, to one of the biggest government consulting firms Booz Allen Hamilton, in order to help them, help their government clients so we would all have better government. You see in order to work with the federal government, you need to be on their approved list of vendors -- we were a start up, so to get things going quickly we had to work through government contractors who were already on the list (even though there were very few good choices on that list and they all were charging horribly high prices accordingly). Booz was on the GSA schedule, so it was easy for any government agency to start working with them and if we helped Booz it would be a way of bringing Change more quickly to those agencies.
Booz had sent people across town going to conferences who were spewing buzz words and titles like "Get On the Government 2.0 Cluetrain or Get Hit by It" but weren't on our campaign and frankly if they did know what they were talking about, they couldn't easily explain it. Their jargon sent well intentioned new media directors spinning in circles, causing real damage to these government agencies trying to figure out how to serve our fellow citizens best in this new frontier with limited resources.
For instance, one thing we learned from the campaign is that the internet is personal. So if you don't have the personnel to operate a blog, constantly update twitter and make youtube videos that are genuine -- then you shouldn't start until you do. We were told from just hired, entry level Booz new media strategists that when government clients would ask for a blog or a twitter feed even if they didn't know what one was, Booz would push them to add all of the above whether they could adequately handle them or not. Since these youngens' were hired from outside agencies, they felt uncomfortable pushing the wrong strategies at their new firm and thought with our Obama experience, we may be able to help Booz to Change their ways.
Our genuine offer was met with emails from Booz to contacts all over town to people on and off the campaigns trying to question whether we were indeed a part of Obama's new media team while inferring we weren't. We were of course were and they could have found out easily enough. There were only about 85 of us, none of which went to work at Booz Allen. Their emails eventually circled back to us, but not before a cloud of uncertainly about our bone fides was spread. We had strength in each other to make it past that smearing, but if you're a single volunteer trying to make it on the DC scene, after seeing things like that all the time, you know its probably better for your career to keep your mouth shut.
The "NEW" economy in February 2009 was based on bail-outs and government spending -- and fortune 500 companies would be found in waiting rooms next to new media staffers looking for a job just about anyplace in government. What didn't really happen was a coordinated plan of keeping the talent we had together to keep things moving. Beyond that, that valuable list of supporters and BarackObama.com was still flapping in the breeze.
It wasn't until March 2009, by my count, that a decision was made that our list would be given to the Democratic Party in the form of Organizing for America. A decision was made that the DNC would own the list and "OFA" would become the new media arm of the democratic party--and it would move inside the DNC world headquarters in Washington, DC. I'm not clear who decided what when and who was able to. In many respects in a vacuum like that, the DNC was probably the only organization who could easily lay claim to the list since Obama became their endorsed candidate.
I personally know some of the people who have worked on that effort throughout its time -- they are good people and they try hard each and every day to truly inspire people. Unfortunately, an old motto that has stuck with me from the campaign is that 'Change comes TO Washington' -- and in the case of OFA 2.0, as we called it (in our time, OFA had stood for Obama for America, our campaign's official name), I'm afraid that motto couldn't be more true.
Obama wasn't the establishment candidate of the democratic party -- our innovations did not occur within the DNC's walls. To place that energy, not only within the Democratic party, but also inside the beltway in the party's headquarters was a signal to many that things were just about done. In Chicago, working for Obama was one of the coolest things anyone could do in town. In DC, it was cool and everything, but there are just so many political jobs and there's a tendency to float around to other places -- it's how you climb the ladder -- many thought it was a job where you'd have to wait till 2012 for it to be interesting, only to possibly be replaced in the home stretch by someone else.
Further more, there was something special and authentic about living outside of the party mainstream, even if we mostly were not. The movement didn't have to be antagonistic to the party's purposes, but having independence would have given it more tools at its disposal to make the kind of genuine connections we really needed the last few years to keep the momentum alive.
What Could Have Been
I want to show you all a video that my friends Kate and Max made during the transition. Daschle: Community Health Care Roundtables.
It was with Tom Daschle before he got run out on tax evasion. This was one of the last videos they made together. How did that woman with cancer make you feel? Tell me something -- was health care sold to you this way?
Here's where I get into trouble.
The House Democratic leadership came to us after they passed the stimulus bill in February of 2009, while "HOPE" & "CHANGE" were very much still the words in DC (the others were "SHOVEL READY"). A few of their staffers saw how the beleaguered Republicans had demonized this bill which prevented states from collapsing and people from losing their unemployment benefits among many other things not fully explained or realized that saved our economy from the cliff. We came back to them with storyboards at their request. We did this for free -- they didn't get approved for publication and no videos were ever made. There was no response to the GOP attacks. It was like they didn't care about explaining what they did to the American people -- they had this "mandate" you see -- why would they have to sell anything.
We consulted with Health and Human Services in April through June of 2009 and barely got a few videos out -- there was no coordinated message, let alone any sort of effort to build up the support we needed to pass something we all know "presidents going back to Teddy Roosevelt weren't able to get done', as Obama often pointed out.
Then finally, in August 2009 after the crazies were coming out to town hall meetings, we volunteered again -- this time to OFA 2.0, offering to get the 'new media video team band back together' in order to tell the stories of the people dying today without health care and to visualize the real life support for changes that needed to be made. All we asked for was distribution. Our efforts were not approved.
The reason I never settled in Washington, DC after the campaign and I find myself over two years later still in exile, is that the creative process (if you can even call it that) in DC is that you do whatever your boss wants you to do, whether it works or not. That boss, got to their position by doing whatever their boss wanted them to do, whether they liked it or not. And generally speaking if you're the boss of something that way, you take the conservative route on things -- you do it the way its always been done or they replace you with someone who does.
Whether it was the stimulus bill, health care, financial reform, college loans all of which on the margin moved our country in a more progressive direction -- we lacked the infrastructure we had during the campaign to make the case, educate the masses and organize people to rally behind these true accomplishments and it didn't have to turn out this way. The really unfortunate part is that many cling to what could have been. We don't have a climate bill -- and most of the other ones that were passed were watered down. Conservative voters are angry too over government take-overs and partisan omni-bus bills. Its a lose-lose situation. Without the massive support behind these measures from the base and independents, we find ourselves in October 2010 in a place no one could have believed if you called them on November 4th, 2008. It just wouldn't be fathomable.
What Do We Do Now?
So who's to blame? Whose fault is this? It's not really about that and that is the game Washington always likes to play. When someone gets fired in DC, that's a chance for someone to move up into that spot. This career repression, based on the premise of power-hungry conformity--is what drives our political 'narrative' (they love that word these days, don't they?) Getting someone fired won't help here -- its no one-person's fault. Some may not believe that -- I want to. My thought is, nothing had ever really happened like Obama's 2008 new media campaign and it is hard enough forming a new government, let alone force start up energy into one of the oldest and largest behemoths mankind has ever conceived(cough, cough, the federal government). At the end of the day it seems, no one really knew what to do with it. Putting one signal face or even a few won't solve the problem -- we have worked to do.
My point here is, lets not throw out the baby with the bath water. I think what needs to be recognized here is that something that worked was lost here. OFA 2.0 as well as the entire democratic movement will continue to struggle if they do not publicly address this
Elephant in the room. This means, you can't keep sending emails from Joe Biden or Barack Obama like nothing happened and hope is in the air. This is not the kind of bullshit we elected into office -- you were supposed to treat us like adults? You clearly don't have the support right now. Stop kidding yourself and in a sense pushing yourself further into the abyss.
There is a sense of loss here among many of us. Not just within the circles fortunate to have worked within the campaign, of course, we're all fine -- but in all of you who gave up something, whether it was calling a stranger, your neighbor or even just liking something we did on Facebook -- the record number of people who for once in their lives actually felt part of the political process. I hear it all the time and there is no doubt you can't just yell "I'm fired up" these days without getting some smirks or smart ass remarks on where people are ready to go with it.
What we had was something of tremendous value and I have no doubt that it can be realized to some degree again. We can pick up where we left off, but not before election day--its just too late to do it right and anyone running should be honest about this. In the near term what should happen? Vote your conscience. Think about the larger picture of what you would feel comfortable with in January if the things you fought for in November 2008 lose. Despite some real progress, those things are all still largely on the table.
After election day, finding the genuine energy and the organization to move it is an illusive thing. No matter what happens this year, on both sides, what we had was good, what we had was true. And if it was all really the case, it will show its face again soon when the time is right -- but only if we start to address these issues I've laid out here publicly. How can we genuinely improve access to government to the masses -- I can tell you this, people are still working on it all over the place you just can't see it all yet -- give it some time.
Until then, we should continue to try to find the things that we all
have in common in order to move forward together. This is maybe where I differ from most people in the movement. We won, not just because this movement inspired liberals, but because it inspired a majority of a nation. It felt good to have things in common with people again. I know some people think Obama threw many causes we care about under the bus -- primarily the public option and basically the entire environmental policy, you can't hear each other when we're yelling. We need at least the independent block of voters in the middle really to bring lasting change, or the other side will just undo things when they get their chance.
The feeling of "we're all in this together" is what I miss more than anything about 2008. It was a tall order, the HOPES and DREAMS of a nation, to be placed on one person. That's because it was never really about him (as he would often tell you) -- it was about all of us. If we're allowed back in, we can help, things will Change... otherwise, Obama will continue to stand alone.