Why Did Obama Lose his Base?

The massive grassroots support Barack Obama won in his campaign was the big story of 2008. But the years since have told a different story. “After the campaign was over, all the books were either about Obama or his inner circle,” said journalist Ari Berman, who covered the campaign for The Nation. “We missed the stories of these organizers and activists.” Below, Berman, author of Herding Donkeys: The Fight to Rebuild the Democratic Party and Reshape American Politics, chats about how Obama – and the tea partiers – borrowed from Howard Dean, and why Obama miscalculated by forgetting his base.

Q. How did Obama borrow from Howard Dean’s campaign?

Herding Donkeys, by Ari BermanA. Obama basically embraced and amplified Dean’s strategy, and what Dean’s campaign considered “the new politics.” Obama tried to create broader participation in his campaign. He tried to get as many people involved in as many places in as many different ways as possible. I think he did that because he was facing the Clintons. The Clintons had a monopoly on establishment politics. They were going to get all the major players, and by and large they were going to get the big money early. They were going to get a lot of the top strategists and operatives and the big endorsements. Obama had no choice but to do something different. That’s where the Dean playbook came in. It was really the only model of how to challenge the Washington establishment.

Q. Why did Obama switch from grassroots to an experienced inner circle?

A. There was such a push-and-pull between some of the inner circle, who are more traditionally minded, and some of the younger organizers, who were more innovative, and some of whom came up through the Dean campaign. The interesting thing was that David Plouffe was open to both worlds. He was an old-school guy with traditional experience in politics, but he knew that he had to do things differently. He allowed, for example, some of the younger organizers and online organizers flexibility. When they showed him that they could mobilize people, they showed they could raise a ton of money and get a ton of support, he became open to that world. It became a badge of pride in the campaign. They were very cognizant of telling the story of their own campaign. It seemed kind of meta to people – why is the Obama campaign always talking about the Obama campaign? They were giving organizers and activists ownership of the campaign.

That got lost in the White House. I think it’s because the White House is an inherently insular place. Rahm Emanuel replaced David Plouffe as the most important person in Obama’s inner circle. Rahm was a total inside-the-beltway operative who I don’t think ever had much regard for the grassroots. That wasn’t his world and he didn’t respect it. The sense of crisis, all the problems Obama inherited, I think it made him lean more heavily on established hands than he said he would. His argument in the campaign was that you don’t need that experience, and I’m mustering a different sort of expertise. He either didn’t buy his own argument, or, for whatever reason, he didn’t trust his instincts. He was leading a lot of people astray during his campaign. His argument was never, “You should elect me so I can appoint Rahm Emanuel, Hillary Clinton, and Tim Geithner, and I’ll bring back the Clinton era.”

Q. Was the switch to a powerful inner circle necessary for a strong presidency?

A. He needed to fuse both worlds more than he did. You certainly need experienced players to negotiate with Congress and get stuff done. I don’t think anyone disputes that. but I also think that giving the organizers some role was crucial. Their role, unfortunately, has been kind of as a figurehead. They mobilized support, and they ask people to fight for a policy, but they never asked them what the policy should be. They weren’t used to put pressure on Democrats in Congress. During the healthcare debate, Obama supporters were never asked to put pressure on Max Baucus, who, as the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, was slowing down healthcare reform. Obama just negotiated with Baucus behind closed doors. If more pressure was put on some of these Congressmen, they would have reached better outcomes, just as the tea partiers have put pressure on Republicans and gotten them to pay attention to their agenda.

Q. What did the Republican grassroots pick up from Howard Dean?

A. They actually say this, if you listen to them. Dean’s campaign slogan was “Take Back America.” I think, of course, it has slightly different connotations with the tea partiers, but it’s the same slogan. There is a big mantra in the tea party about everyday people taking back government, and a mantra of empowerment. That’s very similar to the Dean and Obama campaigns. I think what’s different, at least vis-avis the Dean campaign, is that there is a ton of corporate money exploiting this. There was corporate money in the Obama campaign, no doubt, but the tea party is much more reliant on that big money than they let on. But the tea party was in spontaneous, somewhat, and not taken seriously at first, and went on to be very influential – this is much the same as the Dean and Obama campaigns. I think the tea partiers looked at Obama’s supporters in 2008 and said, that’s what we need to do – we need to get out in the streets. That had a bigger impact especially because Obama supporters were not active after he was elected.

Q. Where are the Obama supporters today, are they involved in the 2010 campaigns?

A. There’s a belated attempt to mobilize the troops, based somewhat on self-interest. But I don’t think Democrats have adequately grappled with the fact that they’re asking their supporters to support people who have in some cases blocked Obama’s agenda. If there’s a Congressman in North Carolina who voted against healthcare, the stimulus, and financial reform, why would an Obama activist want to support that person? That, combined with the bad economy, is motivating a lot of the so-called “enthusiasm gap.” There are people who support the Obama agenda who are still in financial trouble. There is a lot of dissonance in the party that leaders hope is going away, but I don’t think it’s going to go away so quickly. I think there are a lot of Democrats who don’t even care if they lose Congress.

Q. Obama has had some legislative successes, and a Congressional majority – why did he lose his base, and why is 2010 in question for so many Democrats?

A. The majority doesn’t seem like it was everything it was cracked up to be. Obama has passed some big bills. The stimulus passed so easily that I think some people thought it would be that easy every time. In some cases, like healthcare, it took so long to pass and the process was so messy that it nearly turned a popular piece of legislation into an unpopular one. People did not feel inspired by the process. They felt inspired maybe toward the end, when Obama reemerged and fought for it.

Since then, other than the financial reform, not a lot has happened in the midst of a bad economy. They’re having trouble extending unemployment benefits, a relatively uncontroversial thing. People are saying, “Well, listen, if you’re not getting stuff done with 59 votes and a huge majority in the House, what are you going to do differently in the next two years if we send you back to Congress?” That’s one of the reason there’s this anti-incumbent feeling. The economy is bad, and the government seems dysfunctional. That is something the Obama administration should be trying to curb more aggressively in practice and in optics.

Q. What would a Republican victory do to the Democratic base?

A. I think particularly if Republicans win both houses of Congress, Democrats are going to freak out for a while. I think that could really hurt Obama. I think if he just loses the House, for example, there is a scenario in which that could help him. They will be a useful foil for him. There will be tea party people elected. Either they’ll pursue a really right-wing activist agenda that isn’t what the American people really want, and make Obama look more moderate and reasonable. Or the tea party people will sell out and start working with Obama. I don’t see that happening, but if they do, that will enrage the conservative base that elected them. Like the Gingrich revolution, I don’t see these candidates being that sustainable. I don’t think people want to cut Social Security and Medicare and other government programs. They’re just punishing Democrats for a bad economy. But it does matter how Obama reacts to them – does he give in to what they want, or does he highlight their extremism? If he just cuts a bunch of bad deals, like on the deficit and social security and tax cuts, Democrats won’t like that, and that will further demobilize the Democratic base.

Q. Will Obama return to his old supporters now that Rahm Emanuel is leaving?

Ari Berman A. I think so. They know they can’t take the base for granted. Obama is trying to do big rallies again. But really, he’s going to see you can’t turn the switch on and off. There are delicate relationships here, as Obama’s new media director told me. They will atrophy over time. With Emanuel out of there, it’s unlikely his replacement will take up as much oxygen. But I do think Obama’s political capital is severely depleted. If the 2008 campaign was inspirational and poetic, I’d imagine 2012 will be ugly and will require rolling around in the dirt. I think he can win. But it won’t be the same sort of campaign.

Q. What sort of agenda could Obama pursue to inspire his old supporters?

A. He needs to work on some of the things he’s outlined, like energy, climate change, and immigration reform. He needs to do whatever he can do on the economy. Some of the people most hard-hit have been his own supporters – single women, certain minority groups, college students, young people. That’s the Obama base. They’re struggling. I think he needs to use whatever policy tools possible to help them and the country, or he at least needs to give us an idea of what he’s trying to do, and he needs to do that every day. That’s been lost – it’s hard to say if it’s because people just aren’t paying attention to him anymore, or because the right is drowning him out. He needs to get back on that message.

Q. Where are the leaders of his grassroots campaign today?

A. They’re in different places. One of the guys I talk about, Joe Rospars, who worked for Dean and then ran Obama’s new media operations, has gone back to his old tech firm, Blue State Digital. So he’s a little removed now. Another big organizer, Marshall Ganz, who was an advisor to Dean and Obama and mentored a lot of younger activists, is now at Harvard. He’s estranged from the inner circle. He’s become very critical. Jeremy Bird, a young organizer for Dean and then Obama, who was very influential in the campaign especially in South Carolina, is at Organizing for America at the DNC. He’s trying, he’s on the inside. He seems energized about what’s going on. But really, if you look at the grassroots people from the campaign, none of them are in the White House inner circle right now. None of them are Cabinet level, or in the elite positions. At best they’re at the DNC or Organizing for America.

Q. Is that changing?

A. It’ll be interesting to see what happens. I was shocked when they floated Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, as the DNC chair. That’s the last person you want communicating with the base – another insider. That may have just been a one-off rumor, but if that’s the thinking in Obamaland, then that is very worrisome. There is also potential for Plouffe to get back in there and for some of this stuff to change. Like Ganz said, Obama is a learner. But the question is, what is he learning from all this? He needs to try to inspire his supporters again – to give them something to fight for.

*Photo of Ari Berman by Jessica Dimmock. Photo of Obama rally courtesy Amy Goodman.


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