Thursday, June 14, 2007

"Obama as Movement Builder?"

Nathan Newman (TPM Cafe):
I think there's a lot to Jerome Armstrong's analysis about the potential limits to Obama's movement building, but what strikes me about Obama -- and I am keenly undecided still between him and Edwards -- is that Obama is working to engage a lot of folks in movement building who are not the "low hanging" fruit of available activists, including the netroots.
That seems to be part of his church outreach but other outreach as well.

I read his biography a few weeks ago, particularly his chapter on his experience as a community organizer, and it's clear that he (a) does have a deep ear for the complexities of what motivates and doesn't motivate people to be active in politics and (b) tends to listen first and act later. Whether he translates that into a campaign that roars forward later is an open question, but I wouldn't underestimate him.

A couple of data points:

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  • Last fall, even before he announced, I was at the Gamaliel convention, a meeting of nearly a thousand church-based community organizers, where the group of those involved in promoting equity in transit funds declared that Obama had been the key leader on the issue. It's not the issue like Iraq that motivates the Netroots, but it is one that motivates many community activists across the country and many regular voters.
  • Similarly, last Spring Obama's Senate office hosted a meeting of about seventy national leaders on issues like family leave and paid sick days. He's spoken out a bit on those issues and my wife (who is expecting in a couple of months) routinely reads and posts at, a 100,000 plus board of moms and moms to be who are very engaged in such family issues. She tells me that Obama is the clear leader in support there with fierce partisans.

Issues like transit equity and family leave may not be the issues that set fire to the hearts of the blogosphere like Iraq, but Obama is tapping some deep roots with these issues that people like Jerome may not be seeing -- but seem to be showing up in contributions and energy around Obama's campaign. And before anyone says these are Clintoneque micro issues, both transit equity and work-family balance issues are deep structural challenges to the status quo, just not the ones that are front burner right now.

As I said, I'm probably farther from seeing the actual structure of the Obama campaign than Jerome, so his analysis could well be right. But then again, I think there's a real possibility that Obama may be doing the deepest form of movement building, tapping into previously ignored issues and constituencies that may come roaring into prominence and power with his campaign. And that kind of movement building can create significantly expanded political majorities for such a candidate if he succeeds.

Part of my decision on whether I'm supporting Obama is deciding whether he is in fact accomplishing that later goal, since what's clear to me is that Clinton can probably pull off a win next year, she won't change the status quo partisan division much. Obama, on the other hand, has the potential to upend the gameboard and pull some new constituencies into the progressive column. Again, whether he will do so or can do so is still up in the air, but I think it's a real possibility.



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