Barack Obama came to Washington as the first celebrity president in almost fifty years. He was in his element engaging in a kind of uniquely motivational politicking unseen in the modern American public square. But since taking office, it’s almost as if he’s become the incredible shrinking man. The cheering crowds are gone, the smiley-face optimism is gone, and with them the momentum for change.
One of the first things you notice about the White House is how small it is in person — a cramped old building, with offices stacked on other offices, and hallways of faded paint and dim light. It’s hardly the setting displayed in Hollywood versions of the place, and it’s not a football stadium. The new president does not seem to particularly enjoy it, leaving it behind regularly for events large and small, and already taking the opportunity this weekend to go back to Chicago and reboot. Cramped by his surroundings, frustrated by vetting disasters, and already tiring of the harsher lights of the White House press corps, Obama has seemed uncomfortable and even flustered.
We know now how the White House intends to retake command by engaging in the same kind of proven strategies they employed on the campaign trail. This means large events, eloquent speeches tinged with spiritual fervor, and motivation toward action. But there is great risk in such activity for the White House — and Obama’s staff should be cautious in how they deploy the most powerful brand in the world.
There’s no question that the movement Obama embodied as a candidate inspired and motivated an enormous number of people toward participation in the political process. Yet it’s also possible, as I and other writers have noted, that a large percentage of these supporters have already achieved their goal at the point the presidency was secured. If this is the case, they have little motivation to remain plugged in to politics by any real measure — having accomplished their mission as voters and supporters, they’re happy to step back. After all, Barack will deal with everything from here on out.
In one sense, the White House’s return to the old townhall/crowd-focused strategy is an act of personal reassurance. Yes, they can say to the cynical Washington press corps, Obama’s still got it, and don’t you overestimate the support for the intransigent Republicans on Capitol Hill. This is a reasonable strategy to pursue — while every president in the television age has talked at some point about getting past the media gatekeepers to communicate directly to the “real people” of America, Obama is one of the few with a potential to do so successfully.
Yet viewed through another perspective, the overuse of this election-style dynamic is profoundly wasteful, and risks dilution of Obama’s personal power as a leader. One can already see signs of this in the BarackObama.com-fueled parties designed to coordinate support for the stimulus package, which only ended up wasting the time of Obama’s most dedicated grassroots supporters, leaving them disappointed at the failure to answer basic questions, or worse:
In Alexandria, lingering questions about the handling of the $750 billion bank bailout passed right before the election added to concerns about whether stimulus money would be spent responsibly. Obama’s promise to set up Recovery.gov, a website for tracking all the stimulus money, was promising, but not satisfying, attendees said.
“This is not the level of information we need as organizers,” Constance said, brandishing the one-page talking points memo Obama distributed. “We’re supposed to be the ones convincing other people. We can’t do it if we can’t explain it.”
Steve, an auditor from Alexandria, read one talking point to the group before remarking light-heartedly, “I feel dumber after reading that.”
The gatherings were not without praise for the administration, but they were characterized by criticism and frustration. One attendee, Lucinda, tried to lift spirits at the close of the Washington, D.C. meeting by focusing on the diverse gathering of three generations of Americans— from A.J. and his wife to their granddaughter and everywhere in between:
“The fact that you have actually brought together this many people… it’s certainly a huge shift of consciousness,” she said. “I voted for Barack Obama. But this man cannot fix something in two weeks. I think the reality of the expectations set for him were just too high.”
In Alexandria, no one volunteered to lift the mood, as Steve admitted to, “walking away more confused. I came in confident about it, and now I’m like, ‘Hmmm.’”
The always insightful Jay Cost has noted that the stigma of becoming a campaigner-in-chief could diminish Obama’s presidential aura. But there’s more to it than that. Being part of a permanent campaign takes a lot of time, effort, and investment from a portion of the grassroots that already believes they have given to their utmost. To be fair, Michelle Obama herself warned us this would happen (starting around the seven minute mark):
Barack Obama will require you to work. He is going to demand that you shed your cynicism. That you put down your divisions. That you come out of your isolation, that you move out of your comfort zones. That you push yourselves to be better. And that you engage. Barack will never allow you to go back to your lives as usual, uninvolved, uninformed. You have to stay at the seat at the table of democracy with a man like Barack Obama not just on Tuesday but in a year from now, in four years from now, in eight years from now, you will have to be engaged.
It’s one thing to ask supporters to engage. But demanding more and more from them can leave them feeling as if they’re never going to receive a return on investment, and breeds the kind of resentment that has occurred for many single issue groups in the past on the left and the right. You shouldn’t have to send one-pager talking points to your own people to try to convince them to support someone they’ve just elected and donated to — that’s a sign you’ve picked the wrong legislation.
Instead of a permanent campaign, President Obama and his staff should be targeting specific issues — ideally those that are simple and clear cut, with the most populist potential — for their crowds and signs method. A stimulus package of any kind is going to move at the whims of Congress, and inevitably become stacked with pork barrel spending and easily vilified pet projects (Obama should do his best to avoid such broad claims as “Not a single earmark,” which earned the mockery of even the Associated Press — you might get away with such things when you’re getting covered by People, US, Redbook and Esquire, but not when the lead dogs are the AP and Jake Tapper).
The White House should carefully select those portions of their agenda most likely to rouse Obama’s supporters to immediate action. Holding onto that feeling from the heady days of the campaign is a lot easier when you aren’t being called upon to call Congress on behalf of something you aren’t sure about. Obama’s grassroots deserves to know that when the President calls on them to call, march, and organize, it’s for a specific common sense measure, one that can be explained in a sentence or two, and one they will naturally support.
“It is of the new things that men tire — of fashions and proposals and improvements and change,” the purposefully hyperbolic social critic G.K. Chesterton once wrote. “It is the old things that startle and intoxicate. It is the old things that are young.” If he’s smart, President Obama will bring back policy messages that complement the old simplicity of Hope and Change, not squander the momentum of his phenomenal grassroots support on stimulus packages and bank bailouts.