A Tea Party for Obama

As a candidate for the White House, Barack Obama benefited from an unprecedented, broad-based, and passionate grass-roots mobilization. As president, Obama seems to have forsworn that very movement in favor of a strategy of empowering a small circle of the very best and brightest of advisers and relying on the inside game of negotiations with Congress to advance his ambitious agenda.

This strategy has mostly failed. And now the forces of both grass-roots mobilization and money have turned against the White House. The unexpected strength of intransigent Republicans and predictable pressure from banking, pharmaceutical, and medical lobbies have forced Obama to abandon critical elements of his signature reforms in financial regulation and health care. An old-fashioned, close-knit governing style has fed the Tea Parties and the sense of a corrupt process and was probably even a factor in January's victory by Republican Scott Brown in the race for the vacant Senate seat from Massachusetts, foreshadowing dramatic setbacks in the 2010 midterm elections.

Team Obama can almost be forgiven for adhering to a quaint but mistaken theory of democracy. It won the election by a substantial margin and assumed that victory delivered a mandate for its major initiatives, both those that helped mobilize supporters (such as health care) and those that went unmentioned. It tried to advance those initiatives with an air of technocratic paternalism through a handful of really smart people -- -Timothy Geithner, Larry Summers, Peter Orszag -- who would figure out what was best for America and then through skilled political operatives who would get it through Congress.

Obama and the White House staff seem to have lost sight of a reality that the election did not change: Most Americans have become extremely cynical about government. Pollsters often ask Americans whether they think that "this country is run by a few big interests looking out for themselves" or whether it is run "for the benefit of all the people." In the 1960s, the majority of Americans thought that government was run for the benefit of all. But in recent decades, most Americans respond that they think government is run by a few big interests. One election and one president, no matter how appealing or articulate, cannot reverse that tectonic shift in American political culture. Because Americans trust their government much less than they did in the past, politicians must earn public support every day, not just on Election Day. But Team Obama thought that it could live off of the interest.

The administration seems to have two strategies to regain the political initiative. First are some quick shifts in policy to add a more populist-sounding element, such as increasing taxes on big banks to pay off the financial bailout. But the public is right to wonder about the reasons behind the administration's shift in policy. If the administration thought that this was smart policy all along, why roll it out now rather than months ago, when Obama's political capital was high and big banks were up against the ropes?

Second, we can expect to see more of Obama himself and of the campaign operation that brought him into office. President Obama is a gifted rhetorician who will argue as he must given widespread anger and economic insecurity that he is the people's champion against the entrenched status quo of banks, large corporations, and their phalanx of lobbyists. But it will be inherently more difficult for the president to campaign for "change we can believe in" than it was for candidate Obama.

Instead of political marketing, Obama needs to rediscover his own roots in social mobilization and public deliberation. The Tea Party movement today, and before it, the religious right, the women's movement, environmentalists, and civil-rights activists, shows that independent citizens -- not beholden to any politician -- banding together to advance their common values are potent and perhaps essential ingredients for meaningful change. The conservative agenda would not have advanced very far were it not for millions of hard-headed fundamentalists and libertarians who constantly pressed Republican Party leaders to go far beyond their threshold of comfort. The importance of such social forces is easily forgotten and often denied -- even occasionally denigrated as "fucking retarded" -- by Washington cognoscenti with undue regard for their own intelligence and negotiation skills (in this case, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel).

Part of the tragedy is that President Obama could be having his very own tea party right now. In the wake of the election, millions of Americans who participated in the grass-roots movement that supported him were wondering what to do. At the same time, the leaders of that movement were debating what to do with them. Together, they could have spawned a movement composed of independent advocacy organizations. Some of these groups would have made unrealistic demands -- single-payer health care, draconian climate-change measures, bankers' heads on spikes -- and so attacked Obama's left flank. But some of those people would have been re-energized after the president and his team started barnstorming the country. In order to sustain such reinvigoration, however, Democratic operatives would have to tolerate independent groups whose positions would be naturally more extreme than those of the administration. But that uncomfortable tension can be politically productive. Efforts to tame citizens will produce resentment and demobilization.

But that's only one dimension of the solution. It would be impolitic, as well as immoral, for Obama to respond only to social movements of the left. He has said many times that he is the president of all Americans, not just the ones who voted for him. How can Obama engage a broad swath of Americans?

Last summer's town meetings on health care -- the most prominent effort by elected officials to connect with the American public -- was a spectacle of protest, shout-downs, and even severed digits. The motivation behind the health-care town-hall meetings was half right, but its implementation was all wrong. Health-care policy touches every American. Conflicts of important values such as coverage, cost control, choice, and responsibility are inevitable. It is therefore incumbent upon any political party that hopes to change the basic terms of access not just to explain themselves to Americans but to listen to them as well.

It is no secret that the town meetings were held so that Democratic leaders could explain their objectives, rather than listen. To the extent that these meetings were a kind of political theater designed to sell a policy rather than public deliberation about contending health-care values, it is unsurprising that opponents of health care would exploit the meetings for their own theatrical purposes. For a better way to connect with the public, Democrats need only have looked to a different set of public meetings on health care that occurred in California in the summer of 2007. Back in 2007, before the American economy imploded, health-care reform seemed like a real possibility in California and was high on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's agenda. The governor managed to host a more reasoned and inclusive public deliberation on health care than President Obama did three years later.

In California as in the country, then as now, the most vocal voices and powerful forces involved in the issue opposed reform. Six state foundations, with the support not just of the governor and other Republicans but also of Democratic legislative leaders, sponsored statewide public deliberations on health care. On a single Saturday in August, 3,500 Californians met in six simultaneous meetings all across the state. The event was called CaliforniaSpeaks, organized by AmericaSpeaks, a cutting-edge organization devoted to facilitating public deliberation.

Two important differences made those public meetings much more successful than the Democratic health-care town halls. First, participants were largely randomly selected from the population. The politicians and policy-makers who sponsored CaliforniaSpeaks wanted to avoid hearing only from the most passionate believers on either side. So, CaliforniaSpeaks organizers invited individuals to participate in the event using methods similar to those used to select the members of a jury in a court case. Imagine, by contrast, if criminal juries were made up only of people who actively wanted to participate: Many juries would be composed of the families of victims and defendants, and justice would suffer. Public meetings about health care face a similar challenge.

Second, the meeting was designed for participants to reflect upon their own priorities for health-care reform and to debate with one another rather than for political leaders to sell a program. Participants did not sit auditorium style, as in a movie theater or lecture hall, to listen to speakers but sat in small groups around dinner tables so that they could speak with one another. Organizers constructed an agenda of topics that followed live questions about California's health-care policy at that time -- not the simple slogans or sound bites of the national debate but serious questions about employer contribution, expansion of coverage, restrictions on the coverage decisions of insurers, requirements for individuals to purchase coverage, and cost controls.

Participants engaged in serious and searching conversations throughout the day. The vast majority of participants supported fundamental reform of the existing system, and a very large majority thought that cost control was a major concern. Eighty-four percent said that they would be willing to share the responsibility of paying for a health-care program that covered all Californians. When asked to articulate the values that were most important to them in health-care reform, three emerged on top: keeping greed out of the health-care system ("Put people before profit"); affordability ("Quality of care shouldn't depend on the money they have"); and wellness and prevention.

Surveys showed that participants overwhelmingly liked the event and would participate in similar ones (which is unlikely to be true of the crowded, nasty Democratic meetings). After the event, participants were more likely to trust state government to do the right thing, to feel that they could understand state politics, and to contact their representatives in support of health reform. The California initiative was overtaken by the state's budget crisis, but the forums helped build a diverse base of informed supporters.

Though the jury is still out on health reform, the Obama administration could take a similar approach for reaching out to Americans, sponsoring public deliberations and listening to their priorities on controversial issues such as how to generate jobs, immigration reform, and environmental protection.

Some of Obama's political and policy advisers will find social mobilization and public deliberation quite unattractive and even frightening. The president's current advisers have thus far favored the insider game of congressional vote wrangling to the exclusion of strategies that draw upon powerful but less predictable currents in the American public at large. And many policy experts -- in the White House or outside of it -- recoil at the notion of putting complex issues such as health care, financial policy, and regulation to ordinary Americans, no matter how carefully constituted the group or well crafted the deliberation.

During his campaign, Obama often spoke in terms of a "we" and an "us" that fused the American public with himself. On the campaign trail, he said that "if you vote for me, then I promise you this: We will win the general election and then you and I together are going to change America and change this world." But lately, President Obama has become less hopeful and more solitary and pugnacious even as his rhetoric sounds more populist. On financial reform, he told bankers and their lobbyists that if "these folks want a fight, it's a fight I'm ready to have." He promises to fight for us, rather than with us.

Some in the administration -- thus far operating from the wings rather than on center stage -- must reminisce about the heady days of the campaign, when millions of ordinary Americans were "fired up, ready to go." It took a stinging defeat in the New Hampshire primaries to allow these unconventional, small "d" democrats to move candidate Obama's campaign from quite conventional strategies to the grass-roots mobilization that later helped him win the presidency. A similar decentralized, trusting strategy will get this promising administration back on track.


The "Organizing Now" series of articles was produced in conjunction with Demos as part of a year-long joint project titled "The Way Forward," which will include further articles, Web features, and conferences on the hope for progress in the current political climate.