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How to Make Barack Obama Keep His Promises by Justin Boland November 26th, 2008 Delicious

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Sunlight Foundation
same interview
most critics
even US cities
from Bloomberg
"50 State Strategy"
President Obama, Please Get FISA Right
Visualizing Earmarks
""Death and Taxes"
NPR recently

The Network Effect

It's November 26th, 2008, and most of the world is still talking about the recent election of Barack Obama. Business leaders are studying the management, organization and branding skill behind his campaign. The tech community has embraced Obama as the ultimate social validation -- someone powerful finally Gets It. This is also a heady time for political visionaries and rabble-rousers like Jerome Armstrong and Joe Trippi, who have been talking about "netroots" and "participatory democracy" for many years now.

Of course, this could all turn out to be hype. Most of my friends have strong doubts that the "Change" Barack Obama represents means anything beyond being an effective ad slogan. My own view is more complex. Personally, I don't see the next President as a token figurehead or a liberal messiah, but as a dedicated political realist. As Obama himself explains, "since the founding, the American political tradition has been reformist, not revolutionary." He appears to be actutely conscious of the comprimises he makes and the games he's playing, and he's got a larger vision behind everything he's doing.

"My argument is that a polarized electorate plays to the advantage of those who want to dismantle government. Karl Rove can afford to win with 51 percent of the vote. They're not trying to reform healthcare. They are content with an electorate that is cynical about government. Progressives have a harder job. They need a big enough majority to initiate bold proposals."

Here's the good news: if I'm wrong, I'll find out very quickly. The online organizing and social networking that engineered Barack Obama's rise to the White House wasn't just an expensive tool, it was a culture. A culture of people who are motivated, informed and demanding, and a culture that will turn on Obama once they suspect they've been used.

In fact, we might watch Obama alienate his fan base before he even gets sworn in.

Transparency vs. "Transparency"

Open Source Government is a demanding concept, far more grounded in specifics than Hope or Change. One of the most eloquent and educational reads I've found on implementing real "transparency" is An Open Letter to the Obama Administration, from the folks at the Sunlight Foundation. It's a collection of expert opinions, all of which point out that transparency is a fundamental departure from business-as-usual in Washington D.C. This is a process that will make powerful people uncomfortable.

It's true that Obama recieved a startling amount of small donations. However, although 91% of his campaign contributions came from folks who donated less than $200, only 49% of this campaign funds came from small donors. More to the point, the 2008 Presidential Election was the most expensive in American history. Obama out-spent John McCain by a considerable margin: McCain's campaign spent $6.33 per vote recieved, and Obama spent $9.88 per vote.

Talking to Ken Silverstein in 2006, Obama was open about "the benefits of celebrity" for fundraising, and also very frank about the role of donor money in politics. "There are going to be points where donors have more access are taken more into account than ordinary voters," he states at a later point in the same interview.

In 2006, Ben Bernanke was appointed Chairman of the Federal Reserve, and he was also talking a lot about "transparency." The Federal Reserve has been notoriously secretive, and most critics and pundits found it hard to believe that Bernanke would go beyond token gestures to change that. Time has proven the critics right: there have been no substantial changes to Fed secrecy, and in the second half of 2008, things have rapidly gotten worse.

Now the Obama Administration is faced with it's first real test: has Obama been too comprimised by his big donations from Wall Street banks and investment firms? The Troubled Asset Relief Program has exploded in size, from an already massive $700 billion to an unthinkable $2 trillion dollars. The project has already expanded far beyond it's stated goal, offering money to other industries, insider lobbying firms, and even US cities who are desperate for capital. All of this is being conducted with no transparency or accounting whatsoever, and the Federal Reserve is openly refusing to change that.

President-elect Barack Obama's economic adviser, Jason Furman, also didn't respond to an e-mail and a phone call seeking comment from Obama. In a Sept. 22 campaign speech, Obama promised to "make our government open and transparent so that anyone can ensure that our business is the people's business."

Surely, $2 trillion in the people's money is the people's business. It's worth noting that the quote above is from Bloomberg, not some upstart political blog. Jason Furman should definitely get back in touch with Bloomberg, and he should also be holding a press conference, yesterday, about how the Obama Administration intends to stay true to their word and make the TARP process accountable to the people who funded it.

This is an important test for Obama, regardless of the fact his Inauguration is over two months away. He's being watched right now by the network of volunteers, activists and informed citizens that made his election possible. Right now most of the media coverage has framed this political machine like it was the property of the Obama campaign. This attitude is dangerously wrong. In the next year, Obama will realize -- if he hasn't already -- that the People-Powered movement that got him elected is completely out of his control.

Who Owns the Network?

"The mantra was, 'If the same people show up that always show up - we're gonna lose.' We needed to build a new coalition of voters." --Hans Reimer

Obama's campaign machine was built from the pieces of Howard Dean's 2004 presidential bid. Their internet strategy playbook was fundamentally the same, and the company they used to make it happen was exactly the same: Blue State Digital. Dean is now the Chairman of the DNC, and many experts cite his "50 State Strategy" as a key factor in the Obama success story. The trends that made Howard Dean possible have only accelerated since then, and the internet has gone from an exciting new tool to a cultural fact of life.

The Obama administration will be faced with the most rapid media cycles in human history. In 2008, we've gotten used to erroneous campaign claims getting disproven in clinical detail, then spread to a global audience, within less than 24 hours. It will be increasingly difficult for even the most talented PR and media professionals to keep up with a massively crowd-sourced effort to rip apart every single sentence of their work.

The real power of communications technology is in the humans who use it. Beneath the online strategy, the Obama campaign relied on a very traditional "ground game" approach. With a series of "Obama Camps" they trained a national network of capable, motivated volunteers. These activists forged relationships under high pressure, and those real-world social connections cannot be controlled -- or shut down -- by DNC leadership or the wizards at Blue State Digital.

Although the infrastructure behind is amazing, the majority of the online movement is located on other sites: Facebook, YouTube, and hundreds of other social network hubs of varying size. The actual numbers on MyBO users are not public - Chris Hughes will only say "millions." As I'm writing this, the single largest group on the site is "Florida Women for Obama," which has 39,079 members. (Strangely, that group is more than 10,000 members larger than "African Americans for Obama.")

Indeed, one of the largest groups on the site serves as a sign of things to come: President Obama, Please Get FISA Right, which weighs in at 23,222 members. Since it was started on June 25th of this year, it's become a hub for information critical of Obama. I'm certainly not implying this is any threat to the administration's legitimacy -- if anything, encouraging and hosting dissent is a very smart move. Onsite criticism will be easier to deal with than off-site variations. Obama's branding is easy to subvert by design and variations from protesters, opponents and comedians will soon be increasing noise and competing for attention.

The Administration has the power, money and media access to cope with this complex, shifting landscape, but what about social movements composed of normal human beings working volunteer hours?

Netroots Strategies

1. Information Visualization. Merely dumping Federal information online won't be much help in empowering the American People. 500 pages of spreadsheet data is not going to help people understand America's problems, but clear, quality infographics will. Promising projects include the campaign finance data at OpenSecrets, the Pork monitoring of Visualizing Earmarks, and the resources listed at Datamob. Another inspiring example is the Wallstats project "Death and Taxes" which examines military spending is beautifully understandable detail. (We should also be seeing interactive visualization programs for CDC, USGS and Census data.)

2. Leverage the Global Mandate. US policy affects the whole world, and if We the People expect to compete with international corporations, we've got to think bigger, too. Google Trends has shown us that "Barack Obama" is one of the most popular searches coming from Africa. Obama himself has explicitly acknowledged the world beyond the US borders -- it doesn't get much more clear than "People of the world, this is our moment."

Take those words at face value. Think in terms of maximum benefit - what kind of changes will improve lives around the world? Where is there a real consensus, not just nationally but around the world?

3. Be Professionally Prepared. This is the most difficult part. Already, people are complaining about Obama's picks for his Economic Transition Team and his candidates for certain Cabinet positions. I am one of those people, and like all of them, I didn't present the Obama staff with a detailed, carefully prepared list of potential candidates. The Big Donors did. They were ready to go no matter who won on November 4th. We don't need to operate with the same mentality, but we absolutely need the same levels of preparation.

4. Nothing Beats Ground Game. All the social networking in the world can't save a movement without feet on the ground, nationwide. This is the most critical factor, especially since the Campaign money is no longer flowing to support overhead expenses. Mounting a DIY version of the election blitz will involve tremendous demands for time and money. Signifigantly, these demands scale down as the size of the movement scales up - the bigger our consensus, the lower our expenses.

Brand Hope

"I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views."

That's Barack Obama's self-assessment, and many commentators agree. His remarkably flexible charisma has been a huge advantage to him so far, but towards the end of January 2009, he is expected to transition from a blank screen into an actual president. Then, this advantage might become his greatest liability.

Ultimately, I do have hope. I say this for two reasons: first, because Obama is intelligent, ambitious, and just might be an honest human being who truly wants to make progressive social changes and improve life in the United States and around the world.

Second, I have hope because I don't think it matters if I'm wrong. Even if Obama turns out to be yet another liar, he will discover that 2009 is a completely different world than 2006 was. The social media Internet Machine has hit a level of critical mass and self-organization that's rapidly changing the political landscape. Obama will be making decisions under a level of public scrutiny that's never been possible until here and now.

Of course, not everyone sees that yet. Power is too often arrogant, so it's no surprise to hear Jon Carson, the 2008 Campaign's National Field Director, saying this to NPR recently:

"As President-elect Obama takes office and a legislative agenda is put together, I think in the same way these incredible volunteers that we had carried his message throughout the campaign, talking to their neighbors about why he was the right candidate to bring the change that we needed I can see them, in a similar way, explaining a health care proposal, explaining whatever issue it is."

Is Carson wrong to assume their continued support? Or am I wrong to assume that those same volunteers will be self-organizing and imposing their own policies and proposals on the Obama administration? I hope I'm proven right a year from now, and I hope that we can forge an American Consensus through open communication. I hope that we can build a national movement that cannot be ignored. More than anything, I hope that America will put in the work to make it happen...because hope is not enough.