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 week.
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.
Meghan 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.
But 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 way."
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.
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2008