The other Obama transition

As Edward Luce reported in yesterday’s FT, Obama’s sensibly merged his campaign team with the pre-election transition team headed by former White House chief of staff John Podesta, thus trying to avoid the mistakes of the newly elected Clinton Administration in 1992:

Many Democrats believe with hindsight that Bill Clinton’s hazard-prone first term was derailed even before inauguration day in January 1993. A brilliant but mercurial leader, Mr Clinton was also chronically undisciplined. Much of the time that should have been spent fastening the nuts and bolts of an incoming administration was wasted on in-fighting between his campaign team, which decamped to Little Rock, Arkansas, and his ineffectual transition team in Washington DC.

But even if Obama manages to pull off a smooth segue between his top-level planning staffs, you can’t help but wonder what will happen on the public engagement front.  For Obama’s challenge now is not merely that the many tens of thousands of people who signed up to help his campaign are likely to have unrealistic expectations of how much he’ll be able to achieve in the context of the appalling policy mess he’s inherited.  More fundamentally, just imagine the comedown his supporters will be about to experience after the incredible adrenaline surges of recent weeks.

Obama’s campaign, after all, achieved a truly unprecedented level of involvement and participation, as David noted a couple of weeks ago when he linked to Zack Exley’s terrific article on same over at Huffington Post.  Exley observed:

The Obama campaign is the first in the Internet era to realize the dream of a disciplined, volunteer-driven, bottom-up-AND-top-down, distributed and massively scaleable organizing campaign. For anyone who knows how many times this has failed to happen, this is practically an apocryphal event …

In the middle of a good organizing campaign, volunteers will stop and tell you that they are becoming better people. That’s sounds cheesy, doesn’t it? But I’ll tell you, I wrote that line in a first draft of this article while waiting for my own neighborhood team meeting to start in Westport, Kansas City, Missouri. I looked at it and thought, “People won’t buy that.” I figured I’d delete it.

Then, at the end of our meeting, my neighborhood team leader, Jennifer Robinson, totally unprompted, told me: “I’m a different person than I was six weeks ago.” I asked her to elaborate later. She said, “Now, I’m really asking: how can I be most effective in my community? I’ve realized that these things I’ve been doing as a volunteer organizer—well, I’m really good at them, I have a passion for this. I want to continue to find ways to actively make this place, my community, a better place. There’s so much more than a regular job in this—and once you’ve had this, it’s hard to go back to a regular job. I’m asking now: Can I look for permanent work as an organizer in service of my community? And that’s a question I had not asked myself before the campaign. It never occurred to me that I could even ask that question.”

Through the meeting, Jennifer had inspired and commanded the room of 50 new volunteers on top of her five team members who already had roles. Her seven year old daughter had been staring up at her with calm awe the whole time. Good organizing changes the world. In fact, it’s what humanity is made out of. Every one of us is the product of centuries upon centuries of the struggle between good organizing and bad organizing. Barack Obama—through the most incredible, random, beautiful, twists of history—has brought good organizing back. God bless him and the army of volunteer and paid organizers who are making it real.

Logic dictates that it would be hugely in Obama’s interests to maintain the engagement and involvement of this army of supporters beyond his inauguration, even if at a lower level of intensity.  Many of these supporters – having just experienced weeks if not months of intense, meaningful and enjoyable commitment to a larger cause – would doubtless like to continue as well.

But once Obama’s at the helm of the US government – as opposed to a dream-team of visionaries like David Plouffe and David Axelrod – he’ll find that the opportunities for really engaging publics are rather more limited.  So where will all that grassroots energy go?  Five ideas off the top of my head:

1) Into the policy process.  OK, this one’s unlikely, but let’s consider it anyway: Obama manages to build participation into US government policymaking in a way that’s never been done before (think Tony Blair’s Big Conversation exercise back in 2003, and then imagine that the reality had lived up to the rhetoric).  It’s conceivable, but it’s pretty hard to see how the silo-culture of the US federal bureaucracy could cope with the shift.  (Very much the challenge that David and my forthcoming Demos pamphlet on public diplomacy is concerned with, btw.)

2) Into campaigning NGOs.  Outfits like MoveOn.org would doubtless like to see this happen, but I’m not so sure – can they really offer the sense of being part of something in the same way, or the adrenaline of leading the news cycles every day?

3) Into thin air. Another option: all the grassroots energy might just dissipate.  To some extent, this is inevitable, but I don’t think it can be the whole story – not, at least, for the people who were most energised and enthused by the campaign.  For some of them, a more likely avenue is the one that ought to worry Obama right now…

4) Into disappointment and bitterness.  Some of the most energised supporters will feel the painful loss of participation, belonging and campaigning momentum at the very same time that they come to realise the limits of the hopeful campaign messages they did so much to propagate – and that as the US economy continues to tank, there are limits to how much Obama can achieve as President. 

5) Back into the grassroots.  If I were Obama, this would be the one that I’d want to see happen.  Obama’s grassroots campaign was just that – grassroots.  It was locally based, locally engaged, aware of local demographics, debates and demands.  What if some of the networks, relationships and infrastructure of the Obama campaign were now to turn seamlessly into a new web of local organisations for improving local communities – a web that could perhaps re-aggregate anew into a reborn national campaigning organisation four years from now?

Only time will tell which blend of these options proves to be what happens next.  But make no mistake: what happens to the enthusiasm and commitment of his army of supporters matters for Obama.  Let’s hope that there’s been as much transition planning for them as there’s been for selecting the Cabinet and the White House staff.