Why Obama's Majority Can't Govern

Posted: Sep 05, 2014 9:30 AM

In the September issue of Townhall Magazine, where this article originally appeared, New York Times bestselling author David Freddoso explains why President Obama can't govern.

"President-elect Obama will take office in January with a weapon no president has ever had at his disposal: an online army of more than 10 million supporters who can now be put to use to help carry out a sweeping agenda.”

ABC News’ Rick Klein wrote these words on November 11, 2008, just days after President Obama’s historic election victory. And Klein was not alone in offering such descriptions of what was then expected by nearly everyone: an enduring digital afterlife for Obama’s campaign that would give him a presidency like no other.

“Howard Dean used the Web to raise money,” wrote Newsweek’s Daniel Stone around the same time. “But Obama used it to build an army. And now, that army of digital kids expects to stick around and help him govern.”

Democrats loved the sound of this. At that time, Americans had already been deluged with articles about the cutting-edge nature of Obama’s victory. He had used all the latest technology—texts, emails, social media—to drive voters to the polls, run his campaign efficiently, and identify unprecedented numbers of small-dollar donors. All this list-gathering and online activity had produced something that at least seemed lasting.

“The online tools in My.BarackObama. com will live on,” wrote Chris Hughes, one of Facebook’s founders who had helped run Obama’s online operation. “Barack Obama supporters will continue to use the tools to collaborate and interact.”

For Republicans, still stinging from their second straight electoral repudiation, this all had an apocalyptic ring. Rush Limbaugh warned of an “Internet onslaught.”

“No one’s ever had these kind of resources,” Republican campaigner Ed Rollins told the Los Angeles Times’ Peter Wallsten in January 2009. “This would be the greatest political organization ever put together, if it works.”

Just think: 10 million highly engaged and excited Obamians, ready to take up talking points and be deployed at a moment’s notice. Were this actually possible, it would fundamentally change America. 

At the very least, such an army could dominate public opinion online, but there was potential for so much more than that. A truly engaged army of that size could mow down resistance. It could canvass anywhere for any reason. It could produce “spontaneous” demonstrations in favor of anything Obama needed at almost any place or moment. It could put on large enough public displays to boost his public support in his more difficult moments.

Most importantly, it would force everyone to approach governing differently. This new White House would not have to settle for the traditional strategy of making bold proposals and then waiting to be overwhelmed by attacks, as George W. Bush had done with his Social Security reform plans, or as Bill Clinton had done with his failed health care bill.

This time things would be different. Obama would go on the offensive, and his well-organized, massive, perpetual campaign apparatus meant he would never have to let up.

Or so people said, because it seemed right at the time. 

Perhaps the hysteria over Obama’s online success was just a result of political reporters not knowing enough yet about technology and its limitations in sustaining public interest. Perhaps it was America’s innocent optimism about the Internet’s potential. Whatever it was, it was abundantly clear two years later that Obama’s digital army had been a paper tiger: overestimated by those cheering it and those fearing it alike.

As Obama began his presidency in 2009, his online campaign machine (folded into the Democratic National Committee as “Organizing for America”) kept up an outward appearance of activity. In April of that year, supporters on his email list were urged in stark terms to take action (i.e., donate money) to make sure a clean version of President Obama’s budget passed Congress. “This week, our future is at stake,” OFA Director Mitch Stewart wrote of that long-forgotten budget battle.

OFA would keep sending emails every week or two, mostly for small-dollar fundraising. To boost morale, they interspersed their fundraising pitches with local calls to action and praise for supporters (presumably real people) like “Nita L. in Longmont, Colorado, who organized hundreds of supporters in her town to come with her to talk with their member of Congress about how much this fight means to them.”

In August 2009, the group claimed to have organized 100,000 phone calls to members of Congress supporting what would become Obamacare. That same month, OFA staged an online/telephone town hall on health care reform featuring Obama himself. They claimed to draw 280,000 participants—less than 3 percent of the army they had boasted, but still quite a decent number for an event of that nature.

Meanwhile, OFA had slashed its real-world staff by 95 percent—from 6,000 at its campaign height to just 300. This organization, to the extent that it did anything, would rely on its invisible, digital fan club, not a professional campaign structure.

The real question is what came of all this marginal involvement by a relative handful of online volunteers. Did they hang up the phone and go talk to their neighbors? Did they get in people’s faces? Did they actually persuade anyone? Did they do anything to shape the public debate, as so many had expected?

One OFA morale-boosting email from September 3, 2009 boasted that the organization had spent August packing real-life congressional town hall meetings all over America, so that “supporters of reform at times outnumbered opponents by 10-1.”

But the news coverage from that period told a very different story. During the August recess, right after both houses of Congress had begun work on Obamacare, Democratic members returned to their districts only to find themselves under siege from vocal, disorganized, passionate, and at times uncouth tea party conservatives.

As this rabble seized control of the public discussion, polls in the off-year governor races in Virginia and New Jersey began showing that Democratic voters were dangerously disengaged compared to their Republican counterparts. This “enthusiasm gap” was a national problem and would persist through the next year’s midterms. Gallup’s daily approval rating for Obama, once sky-high, also fell to 50 percent for the first time that August, down from 61 percent at one point in mid-July.

Democrats—most notably then- Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) reacted to the tea partyers by labeling them an astroturf operation. But this is especially interesting in the context of the expectations surrounding OFA. Was someone out-astroturfing (or even just genuinely clobbering) an established, well-funded 10-million strong digital organization? Or was there just a lot less to OFA than ever met the eye?

Far from directing or changing the nation’s political conversation, OFA was a mere spectator when Obama lost control of the health care debate; when public opinion swung wildly against both Obama and Obamacare that summer and fall. All it took was a bit of genuine public anger, and poof—it was gone.

By mid-2010, when his approval ratings finally turned negative (they would more or less stay that way through Election Day), Obama had been battered by more than a year of non-stop attacks on Obamacare, his 2009 stimulus package, and his shared involvement in George W. Bush’s bank and auto bailouts. No one had his back or ran any kind of effective interference for him. These issues would become the foundation of fall campaigns that gave the GOP its largest House majority in six decades and rescued the party from irrelevance.

In September 2010, expert political handicapper Charlie Cook laughed off the idea of a late rescue by Obama’s online organization. “There’s no chance that OFA is going to have the slightest impact on the midterms,” he told Time’s Jay Newton-Small in September 2010. His statement was by then the conventional wisdom. Newton-Small noted that although OFA had knocked on 200,000 doors a month earlier, it was one-tenth of what the organization was able to do when Obama was on the ballot.

OFA’s failure to shape the debate or contribute meaningfully to the 2010 election outcome produced a tough moment of introspection for the media, which had overestimated both Obama and the importance of his technological juggernaut. Newsweek’s Daniel Lyons wrote a very sincere public confession, acknowledging that he and his colleagues had been taken in: 

“Swept up in the euphoria of the moment, we foresaw online brainstorming sessions where Netizens would generate ideas and vote them up or down in a free-flowing, collaborative, open-source manner. We imagined Web sites where regular folks could propose legislation. We even suggested that maybe the very nature of democracy was changing because of the Internet. What were we smoking?”

Whatever they were smoking, there was some of it left over in January 2013. Once again, Obama had won an election with a smart and technology-driven campaign. And once again, political reporters—even those as sharp as The Atlantic’s Molly Ball—wondered whether this time, it might be different for OFA. This time, it might really last and help Obama govern.

Ball noted that the organization—now re-formed as a non-profit called “Organizing for Action”—“could be the key enacting the president’s agenda” and “Obama’s best hope for his aggressive program” to move measures on immigration, minimum wage, climate, and gun control through Congress. Of course, Congress has had other ideas, and OFA hasn’t exactly had Republican members quaking in their boots.

In summer 2014, with Obama’s second-term agenda vanishing beneath domestic scandals, world crises, and rock- bottom approval ratings, his perpetual campaign operation continued to fizzle. OFA’s fundraising take of $3.9 million in the second quarter of 2014 was the smallest in its reincarnated existence. The group cut its staff again in May, now down to just 100 employees. In June, OFA stopped soliciting large donations. As for its visible effects this year, there just isn’t much to write about.

And OFA isn’t much in the virtual world either. Consider the group’s YouTube account, whose user engagement can be directly observed and quantified. OFA is in the habit of making short, high-quality videos on important issues. It made one in mid-July promoting a minimum wage increase, which it tweeted out to the 44 million followers of President Obama’s OFA-controlled Twitter account. Four days later, the video had been viewed by fewer than 7,000 people. 

And that’s a typical result for OFA videos, even though many of them appear to have been made at great expense. A similarly high-quality piece on Obama’s climate efforts got fewer than 4,000 views in its first month online—again, after being tweeted to a population larger than California, which goes to show that one can build an online community of any size that is completely disengaged. Incredibly, you can have 44 million Twitter followers, yet remain so irrelevant that neither fans nor foes will so much as bother to click your links.

Even if outside measurements of web traffic are somewhat unreliable, Alexa’s web analytics tool suggests that BarackObama.com’s best days are behind it. During election season, the website was briefly among the top 1,000 in America. Immediately afterward, it resumed its status as a dead-end on the information superhighway. As of July 2014, OFA’s site ranked 7,474 in the U.S.—far behind Townhall.com (ranked 1,010), HotAir (1,077), PetSmart (1,180), the official website of Major League Soccer (1,435), the children’s educational site ABCMouse.com (2,497), and the official website of the Department of Justice (3,875).

Yet for all the indicators that it is nothing special anymore, OFA has obviously been something quite real when it mattered most for Obama. Obama’s digital dominance surely helped him win in both 2008 and 2012. His online armies have, at very particular moments in time, proven that they really are out there somewhere and can make a difference.

So how and why do they seem to collapse into virtual non-existence after each election is over?

On election night 2012, Mitt Romney’s top advisers were quietly optimistic about their candidate’s chances. Sure there were a slew of polls showing Obama with a comfortable lead. But all of those poll results were built on samples that looked nothing like the electorate Romney’s team expected to turn out. When pollsters used samples that better matched how Republican strategists thought the electorate would look, Romney had a strong chance of winning.

Of course, we now know that the electorate that turned out in November 2012 was nothing like what Republican strategists thought it would be. The Obama campaign had poured millions of dollars into a sophisticated digital voter contact and outreach operation. “The power of this operation stunned Mr. Romney’s aides on election night,” The New York Times reported, “as they saw voters they never even knew existed turn out in places like Osceola County, Fla.”

But while Obama has proved a master at turning out marginal disengaged voters once every four years, the repeated failures of OFA show that progressives have completely failed at keeping these people engaged politically when they don’t have hundreds of millions of dollars to organize them.

As the promoters of books, movies, and rock music albums are well aware, one can build up temporary enthusiasm for any reasonably good product with the right advertising budget. Obama, already an attractive product as early as 2004, had a $730 million campaign to build him up in 2008, and a billion-dollar campaign to pull up his popularity in 2012.

But when the money and the traditional campaign infrastructure go away, so does all the excitement. As with all marketing, the hype eventually dies out. There’s nothing magical about the Internet that could change this. The Internet is just one more marketing tool—albeit a very advanced and useful one. It makes it easier to reconnect with an audience, at least until your dozens of ignored messages end up in the spam filter.

This phenomenon presents a fundamental problem for the Obama majority. Yes, they can manufacture a quadrennial spectacle popular enough to send a celebrity candidate to the White House.

But the progressive movement has now repeatedly failed to produce the broad and sustained commitment to their agenda necessary to actually change how Washington is governed.

The United States is still a republic. Power is divided among branches of governments and elections are purposefully staggered so that big changes require real consensus.

Until the progressive movement can locate the funds necessary to fund a non-stop, billion-a-year voter engagement campaign, they will continue to fail in Washington.