Editor’s Note: A lot of Obama’s supporters are bitterly disappointed with him, and what they thought would be a radical new approach to government. Author Ari Berman eloquently explains what happened to the Democrat’s strong lead–and what we may still be able to do. This post originally appeared on The Progressive Book Club.
There are those who see Barack Obama’s obvious preference for deliberation and compromise over partisan combat as a plus; others–the netroots types, the grassroots Democratic activists, the folks who got behind him because they thought he would change the way our politics is conducted –it’s a source of rage and resentment, as we saw last week with the flap over the president’s tax cut deal.
Ari Berman, one of progressive journalism’s rising stars, is in the latter camp. In his excellent recent book, Herding Donkeys, he recounts the story of how a grassroots resurgence revitalized the Democratic Party in the four years between Howard Dean’s insurgent presidential bid, in 2004, and the election of Barack Obama. In Berman’s telling, Dean gets credit for first tapping the activist energy across the 50 states both as a candidate and then as chair of the Democratic Party, laying essential groundwork for Obama’s success.
As president, Obama had a real opportunity to build on the momentum of his historic election, says Berman, by harnessing his grassroots base to push for fundamental change in Washington D.C. Instead, his administration quickly adopted a traditional top-down, work-within-the-system kind of approach to politics, to the bitter disappointment of his most ardent supporters.
Berman spoke with PBC several weeks ago about Obama, Dean, and the Democratic Party’s short-lived resurgence.
What did Obama’s grassroots supporters hope their role would be under an Obama presidency?
The Obama model, which he talked a lot about in the campaign, he was going to take all these grassroots supporters and make them part of the legislative process in Washington, [as a] parallel force that could really put pressure on the entrenched interests that had been blocking change for so many years. And that hasn’t happened; instead we’ve seen a much more conventional, top-down White House following a familiar Washington playbook.
How has that hurt him, and Democrats, in practice?
During the health care debate, when Max Baucus was stalling and fruitlessly negotiating with Republicans, you could have had the Obama supporters in Montana put pressure on Baucus and say, “Max, Let’s move this along, this is really draining the president’s political capital.” That doesn’t happen; the White House didn’t want independent groups to put pressure on anybody, because they thought it would backfire. Then, when MoveOn.org wanted to run ads against conservative Democrats blocking health care reform, Rahm Emanuel called them “f-ing retarded,” which I think had a very demoralizing effect. Meanwhile, Obama wasn’t telling people what to fight for–what he was for. The result is we finally get a bill, but it takes so long and the process is so messy and it depletes Obama’s capital so much that success looks almost like a failure.
Some argue that grassroots Democrats expected too much from the Obama presidency.
Well, you have to hold him responsible for the expectations he raised, because nobody did more than he did to raise them. The inspirational rhetoric was key to his candidacy. He probably should have done a better job after the election of managing some of those expectations, particularly on the economy; he could have said, “Look, we have a plan, but we inherited a huge mess and it’s going to take a long time for it to get better.”
You credit Howard Dean, especially in his role as chair of the Democratic National Committee, with developing this grassroots that model Obama followed as a candidate but emphatically hasn’t as president. Remind us what changes Dean made at the DNC.
After 2004, when everybody was slicing the country into red and blue states, Dean ran for party chairman with a 50-state strategy, basically arguing that there were a lot of Democrats in these red states and that if Democrats were going to win a majority they would have to start winning in some of these places, like Indiana, Idaho, North Carolina. He argued that the way to do that was to start rebuilding local Democratic parties, giving them an infusion of staff and money and training, upgrading their technology for keeping track of voters, and creating a bench. They had organizers out there knocking on doors, and morale is very high, and I don’t think you can overstate the value of that, as we’ve seen in 2010. As a result, in 2006, as the country soured on Bush, the Democrats were well placed to take advantage, because they had all these different candidates in different states.
What happens after Obama is elected and Dean leaves the DNC?
Dean wanted to leave anyway, but he’s unceremoniously pushed out, and he doesn’t get a job in the administration; that’s one signal that they don’t think they need his constituency any more. At the same time, all these organizers who are part of the 50-state strategy aren’t kept on–their contracts expire and they’re not replaced. Basically, the president tries to replace them with people from Organizing for America [the successor to his campaign arm], but the OFA people aren’t working on the party stuff, only Obama stuff. So for about a year the party’s just stumbling. They’re getting $5,000 a month, which is a lot less than they got before. One of the lessons of the Dean era–and from Obama’s campaign–is that you need to invest in them very early on and give people ownership and empowerment. Instead, here the party is weakened at the very moment you’d think it would be strengthened.
What does Obama need to do heal the rift with his base and strengthen the party?
I think that reconnecting with the base is critically important. The Obama people seem to be really frustrated, like the base just doesn’t appreciate them, and they may have a legitimate point, but that’s not going to make it better. What’s going to make it better is the kind of dialogue that existed during the campaign, and giving them some ownership and some tangible things to fight for. Obama’s essentially being pulled in two different directions: one direction is to try to moderate his agenda and try to work with the GOP on issues like tax cuts and the deficit and trade, and others, and try a triangulation strategy, like Clinton. But it’s not clear to me that he’s going to be able to triangulate successfully with a Tea Party-infused Congress.
So if GOP obstruction is a given…
Then the question is, how do you use that to your advantage? I would lay out a much bolder economic agenda and figure out a) how to pass that in whatever form you can or b) if you can’t pass it, you do it through the authority of the executive branch or else just make the Tea Party people block it and talk about it over and over and get your base fired up and draw a sharp contrast for the American people. It’s not clear to me which way he’s going to go, but if the economy doesn’t get better and the base doesn’t get more enthusiastic, then Obama’s going to be in trouble heading into 2012.
And what lessons do you hope Obama and his advisors will draw specifically from the 2010 midterms?
I wouldn’t necessarily extrapolate too many of the lessons of 2010 to 2012, because the dynamic will be different. A lot of Democrats are in a hard-core despair moment, but the fact of the matter is midterm elections generally speaking tend to break against the party in power, especially when there’s a weak economy and it’s a lot easier to make it a referendum on a party. I do think 2012 is going to be much more of a choice than a referendum. Also, we’ll see where the Tea Party goes; the quest for ideological purity could really end up hurting the Republican Party in the 2012 primaries. So I’m not convinced that 2010 tells us a whole lot about 2012.
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