Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Obama's 2008 Campaign. The Strategy

A video was discovered that included a panel of people who discussed the strategy of the Obama campaign in 2008 shortly after the election.  It took place at the Elizabeth Sacklee Center (feminist organization) in February 2009.

One member of the panel was a man named Andrew Golis.  He started a website called and was one of the creators behind the "causes" application for Facebook.  Other career highlights include being a staff organizer for the Howard Dean campaign as well as founding the Harvard Progressive Advocacy Group.  He left working with TPM in October 2009 to work for Yahoo news.  In March 2011, he joined Frontline, an affiliate of PBS.   His comments start about 10 minutes into the discussion.  Towards the end, there is a question and answer period where Andrew makes the following comment:

"Obama's narrative, even though he uses community organizing, his career is actually paradoxically kind of a rejection of that as a real tool for progress.  He basically became a very savvy, cynical politician because he understood that other stuff didn't work.  This is a man who redistricted his own state senate district in Chicago so that he would have on the one hand, rich white people, and on the other hand, poor black people.  Because he knew that black people could be his voting base and white people could be his money base.  He SPECIFICALLY redistricted his district because he understood he had to appeal to upper class, educated white people like us who would buy into his shtick."

Another member of the panel is Daniel May.  He worked for ACORN around the time of the election.  Previous to that, he worked in Los Angeles for the IAF.  Specifically, he worked with immigrant congregations to promote their issues.  His statements on the tactics of Alinsky and how they relate to Obama were interesting and certainly sounded familiar.

"Obama comes from a very particular organizing tradition.  And it was founded by this guy, Saul Alinsky, in the 1940s.  He founded an organization called the Industrial Areas Foundation that then spun off a number of different groups including a network called Gamaliel which is the group that I worked for.  And there are some very explicit principles with this kind of organizing." 
Obama wrote an article while at Harvard called "Why Organize?"  In the article, Obama mentions a woman who asked him "I cannot understand why someone would go to college, get a degree and then become a community organizer."  Obama noted in his book, Dreams From My Father, "I thought back on that conversation more than once during my time I organized for the Developing Communities Project (Gamaliel affiliate) based in Chicago's South NEEDS to be done and not enough folks are doing it."

"What was it Obama thought needed to be done?  There's a couple of key principles in the way that the IAF organizes. First is that you don't organize around an issue, you organize for POWER.  So this is sort of the central radicalism of the kind of organizing that shaped Obama.  This is what makes it different from the civil rights tradition or what makes it different from the labor organizing tradition, although it's closer to them...
The process of organizing begins with these series of conversations.  Obama goes out and does these 'interviews' to find out what is in their self-interest and then, through those conversations, he needs to figure out what is the agenda we're going to work on.  But, he doesn't start with the issue.  So he comes to figure out, ok, we're going to work on asbestos by a series of conversations he does in these churches in the South Side.  He comes to think about job training because the conversation he'd had with people who were not employed. 
From Obama's book, his character "Marty" gave Obama a long list of people to interview.  Marty said, 'Find out their self-interest.  That's why people get involved in organizing because they think they can get something out of it.'  Obama said, 'Once I found an issue that people cared about, I could take them into action.  With enough actions, I could start to build POWER.  Issues.  Action.  Power.  Self-interest.  I liked these concepts.  They bespoke a certain hard-headedness.  A worldly lack of sentiment.  Politics, not religion.' "

"The particular kind of organizing that Obama comes out of is radically non ideological.  It's not about justice, I mean, it IS about justice, but the training that the IAF does and that he did wasn't training around 'what does justice mean?  What does equality mean?'  It was training around 'what is POWER' and how do we build it? 
The focus on individual stories being the center, the engine of the organizing process is something that Obama used all through the campaign.  Now other folks have done this, but I don't think in the same way that Obama did.  So, at the convention, before he spoke, there were these 4 people who gave these 7 or 8 minute speeches and they were just folks who had stories to tell about what was going on in their lives.  And the infomercial, I mean, the majority of the infomercial, Obama isn't even talking!  It's these everyday folks who are telling these stories.  All of that stuff is part of the practices that were ingrained in him as a young organizer."

"Another place where I think you really see the influence of organizing was in the particular slogans that became the centerpiece of the campaign.  I just want to point out one which was 'Yes we can'.  So, 'Yes we can' was based on 'Si Se Puede!'  'Si seUFW working for Saul Alinsky and the CSO and Obama, he knows this history.  He knows this tradition.  But the interesting thing about Yes we can is that it sort of embodies that idea that what we're going to do is build POWER that can then act on all sorts of issues.  It's not like 'Yes we can do...blank!'.  'Yes we can' implies there's all these things we can do.  But the particular irony of the way Obama used it was that it had a very specific, unstated conclusion to the phrase.  'Yes we CAN elect a black man who's named Barack Hussein Obama'.  And this view was almost a blasphemous use of the phrase.  Alinsky's super hero was this guy, John Lewis and head of the CIO (later became the AFL-CIO).  So Alinsky thought about organizing the same way Lewis thought about organizing which is that you organize people in a workplace to get POWER so that you can get concessions from management.  So the way that Alinsky thought about organizing is that you organize people to get concessions from government.  You do not organize to move the agenda of somebody in office.  You organize to PRESSURE that person who IS in office."