Obama's Army of Supporters Must Maintain Their Level of Activism

The potent force behind the president-elect's campaign cannot allow the big business lobby to seize back the agenda

Steve Thompson is heading home. Over the last year he has travelled
the country volunteering for President-elect Barack Obama. Thompson,
68, volunteered for Obama in Maryland, Texas, Pennsylvania, Indiana and
Virginia during the primaries. Since mid-June he has been living with a
local family in Roanoke, Virginia, working 12 hours a day, seven days a
week on the campaign. When I called him late on Saturday afternoon,
Thompson, who is retired, was in the soon-to-be vacated Obama office,
cleaning the windows, before heading home to Washington DC early this

Brian Corr has been working for Obama for between 10 and 15
hours a week since January 2007 from his home in Boston, on top of his
full-time job. Occasionally he goes to New Hampshire, but otherwise he
does what he can in the local area or from his computer.

Schertz, 29, has been volunteering for Obama for about 30 hours a week
in Roanoke since Hillary Clinton, whom she supported in the primaries,
dropped out. Schertz, a Roanoke native, often went straight from work
to the Obama office most week nights and all day on the weekend. The
day I met her she was out canvassing when a Ralph Nader supporter
threatened to shoot her for being on his property.

The army of
tens of thousands of volunteers who gave huge amounts of time and often
small amounts of money for Obama are about to become civilians again.
Given the length, intensity and outcome of the campaign they are demob
happy and a little weary. Thompson may travel before returning to the
third edition of his book on Spanish verb conjugations. Corr is getting
married. Schertz says she wants to "sit on my arse and watch reality TV
for a while".

But it was great while it lasted. Their time in the
service gave them a sense of purpose, camaraderie and a unique
experience of what America could be and do. A friend who phone-banked
for Obama in east Los Angeles wrote to me just before polling day with
the following note. "The office was jam-packed - full of people of
every colour and there did seem to be a class differential, too ... It
just lifted me to see everyone working together ... Food, childcare, it
was all there. And to see old black women screaming Si, se puede [Yes
we can] was all I need to face the week."

What happens to that
energy now? Notwithstanding his oratorical skills and interesting
personal biography, the most interesting thing about Obama has always
been his base. In a period of economic and global upheaval he united
the black, the young, the Latino and the poor, bonding their hopes and
turning them into a potent electoral force.

A quick look at the
results tells us how central they were to Tuesday's result. Obama won
Florida, Ohio, North Carolina and Indiana - which between them total 73
electoral votes - with just 51% of the vote or less. It is difficult to
see how he would have achieved that without his much vaunted ground
game, and that game consisted of people like Schertz, Thompson and
Corr, knocking, dialling and entering data. That gives them leverage.
If Obama wants a second term he will need them. And if he needs them he
will have to please them.

But the very fact of them also
challenges a major misconception about American political life. The
notion of a lazy, contented people who do not vote, care or really
understand what is being done in their name - leaving governance to big
business, and lobbyists and Europeans feeling smug.

"Fully 60% of
registered voters said they were following campaign news very closely,
while 28% said they were following fairly closely," wrote the Pew
research centre of the past week of the campaign. That's the highest
level since it started tracking campaign interest 20 years ago. Active
political involvement has also seen a steep rise, both on the right and
the left, in the past decade. In short, as Europeans become more
disaffected with their politicians and less likely to engage with their
politics, Americans have been moving in the other direction.

for all their independence of spirit, they were nonetheless dependent.
Until last Tuesday their priority was his: to get him elected. For
almost two years they have done what he asked. They called and
canvassed where the campaign directed them. With no democratic input,
they promoted the agenda the campaign had outlined. It was Obama's
show. They funded it and promoted it. But they did not own it. But
since Wednesday all of that changed. They won. Now we'll see whether
this electoral base has the will and wherewithal to transform itself
into a political movement that might both support and challenge him.
"The president can't do a lot without public opinion," says Thompson.
"They need consensus and they can't create that on their own. Sometimes
people have to put their feet to the fire."

Given the specific
tasks of this moment this is no empty rhetoric. When Obama takes office
in January he will have to choose the degree to which he bails out
banks or people, what weight he gives to the military establishment
against his overwhelmingly anti-war supporters, and whether he wants to
take on the oil industry or environmentalists. This will not just
depend on his campaign promises but the balance of political forces at
the time. One of the problems with the American left's cries of
betrayal when Democratic presidents drift to the right is that it has
all too rarely provided a left for them to turn to.

This time
might be different. "People have been excited by Obama's candidacy but
also by working together," says Corr. "Organised people are more
powerful than organised money ... we need to make sure that all that
hope that we have talked about and seen is channelled in a progressive

As Corr concedes, this is not only far easier said than
done, it is often said and rarely done. Everyone I met who campaigned
for Obama says they vow to keep on campaigning for something. But most
will be working for different things, dissipating the pooled energy
that erupted in this election.

Thompson wants to carry on working
on issues of the environment and the Middle East. Schertz is thinking
of volunteering for Planned Parenthood. "You can't just leave it up to
the president. You have to take ownership of it as a citizen. Obama
kept saying: it's not about me. It's about you."

At a meeting
of the New York City people's convention 2009 on Saturday this was the
central theme. In a moving contribution a young black man got up to
declare that he supported Obama and wanted to get involved before he
got bought off and cynical.

"Are you a member of an
organisation?" the chairwoman asked. "I don't even know what
organisation I would join," he replied. "We have a list of several you
can choose from," said someone from the audience.

And in that
brief exchange, you could see the possibility for both change and
confusion, for energy to be channelled and diluted, for the potential
of this moment to be seized or squandered.

The first act is
over. The question now is who will write act two? The protagonists
should not cede the stage, lest the powerful shape the narrative.

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