Barack Obama's history in grass-roots organizing got its first real blast of national attention from the Republicans. Rudy Giuliani, keynoting the GOP's convention in St. Paul, provoked a wave of snickers and catcalls by sneeringly asking, "What's a community organizer?" Sarah Palin followed with a dig of her own.
On Nov. 4, they (and we) learned that Obama's three years on the streets of Chicago, helping the unemployed find jobs and helping neighborhoods press the city for critical services, were the first steps in building the impressive organizational skills to win the presidency of the United States.
As my academic-activist friend Peter Dreier notes, "The Obama campaign hired hundreds of organizers from labor unions, community and environmental organizations and religious groups. They, in turn, recruited tens of thousands of volunteers and trained them in the skills of community organizing. They used door-knocking, small house meetings, cellphones and the Internet to motivate and energize supporters. They used the Internet and social networks to raise funds, in small and large amounts, from the largest-ever donor base. They opened more local offices than any other presidential campaign."
So now comes the question: How will the vast Obama campaign database of 3.1 million donors, 10 million supporters, be used?
For legal and privacy reasons, the overtly political part of it - prompting pressure on members of Congress to support Obama proposals, supporting Democratic candidates in 2010 and 2012 - will have to operate independently of White House operations.
But the Obama team has already set up a Web site, www.change.gov, which is reporting on transition developments, relaying the president-elect's messages, and inviting subscribers to register their own opinions and ideas. A parallel White House effort is to follow.
Now comes the thorny question: Where is all this activity headed? David Bollier, editor of the onthecommons.org Web site, poses the critical question: "Will the people on these lists be treated as a claque of loyalists who will be fed Pavlovian directives of the sort that Rush Limbaugh issues to his 'dittoheads'? Or will Obama allow his millions of supporters to mature into a community of citizens who, while obviously sympathetic, will be allowed to deliberate among themselves, disagree with the administration and even publicly challenge the president?"
My strong hunch is that Obama, true to his community-organizer roots, will opt for open discussion - part of an exciting change in national direction in which grass-roots citizens are both honored and relied upon.
But it may be challenging to keep an open-dialogue national network up and running: In the midst of hard-fought battles for administration bills, the president's own political operatives will be tempted to use the big national network for constant support, few questions asked.
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Plus, while people in the network might be polled to determine their opinions on set questions, the logistics of harvesting tens of thousands of "best" ideas, evaluating all with fairness and then translating them into clear options, might prove daunting.
The task, though, could be made more manageable by channeling many communications to the appropriate Cabinet departments and asking them to respond. Indeed, the Democratic platform, composed in large part by the Obama team, clearly promises:
"We will enhance the flow of information between citizens and government - in both directions - by involving the public in the work of government agencies. We will not simply solicit opinions, but will also use new technology to tap into the vast expertise of the American citizenry."
It couldn't be said more clearly!
Indeed, the opportunities for increased transparency and accountability to the public, at the Cabinet and agency level, represent one of the most exciting possible breakthroughs. It may require a lot of guidance and encouragement of Washington's long-maligned bureaucracies. Though many of the "faceless" but dedicated officials in the agencies, frustrated by the inattention and neglect of the Bush years, will likely welcome the fresh winds of direct contact with a concerned public.
What's fascinating about all this is the two-way communications potential on issues crucial to the country's future, building ideas of mutual responsibility.
A top example: the global climate and energy crisis. It will require, notes Seth Fearey of Joint Venture: Silicon Valley Network, dramatic behavioral change on the part of Americans - to cut back on our voracious energy consumption, drive less, use transit and bikes more, recycle and conserve in more ways than official Washington could ever imagine.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt succeeded, in his fireside chats, to convince Americans to conserve in World War II. Without a war, motivating a nation may be far more difficult.
Which is precisely why Obama's weekly addresses (being carried on YouTube), combined and strengthened by "social networking" through his motivated Internet-linked network, might be the right combination for the times - presidential leadership combined with community organizing, mobilizing us to act on the most pressing 21st-century challenges.