What happened to ‘Yes we can’?
How do they get the “we” back?
Good question. We all remember how Obama broke new ground in the 2008 campaign by using social media as a powerful political tool. Obama’s campaign created an expansive Internet platform, MyBarackObama.com, that gave supporters tools to organize themselves, create communities, raise money and induce people not only to vote but to actively support the Obama campaign. What emerged was an unprecedented force, 13 million supporters connected to one another over the Internet, all driving toward one goal, the election of Obama.
When they chanted “Yes we can,” it wasn’t just a message of hope for the future – it was a confirmation statement of collective power. They weren’t waiting to be told what to do; they were actively engaged, calling friends to come to events, learn what was at stake, contribute ideas, and help out in some way. The power of “we” was awesome to behold. The “we” not only raised hope for people but also unprecedented sums of money for the old-fashioned campaign on the ground.
But this time, “Yes we can” has been replaced by a new modus operandi for the Obama campaign. It’s “We know you.”
The Democrats are investing heavily in what’s called Big Data to give them significant new insights into the everyday behavior of each one of their supporters. Big Data allows companies, or political campaigns, to probe and analyze information about you – your friends, your shopping habits, what type of events you go to and when, and what issues you care about. With this information, they can presumably be more accurate in sending messages out over email or in identifying the trigger points that send you to events and get you to donate money.
But whatever happened to the power of the people? Whatever happened to the “we”? We haven’t heard about it since the 2008 victory. “They built the largest online community in the history of the presidency,” says Andrew Rasiej, founder of Personal Democracy Media, which tracks the intersection of technology and politics. “But then they stopped talking to them and engaging them” – that is, until they called in recently with a pitch for money.
Obama did make some efforts to be the first Internet president, with a twitter feed, a blog and the Internet version of the traditional town hall. He launched an open government initiative with the aim of cutting the influence of special interests and giving the public more influence over decisions that affect their lives. Compared with other countries around the world, the U.S. is the gold standard for government openness.
And yet, four years after Obama was elected, nothing much has changed. Rasiej is disappointed: “Lots of us believe he squandered the massive political constituency that was drawn to his message of hope and change.” The 13 million supporters, for instance, could have helped Obama by lobbying their congressmen to back the healthcare legislation. Yet Rasiej thinks the White House, and in particular Obama’s first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, didn’t believe in the power of “we.” “They went back to the bully pulpit of the presidency. They literally put on the armor of 20th century communications.”
That attitude seems to have influenced the 2012 campaign. In Los Angeles, 33-year-old film executive Haroon “Boon” Saleem can see the difference. Back in 2008, he organized lots of events to galvanize young professionals – comedy nights, debate-watching parties, movie nights where you could meet successful movie and TV celebrities. They spread the word, made friends and helped to raise $1.6 million for the campaign. The ideas didn’t come from the Obama organization. “We just did it,” says Saleem. This time, Saleem is planning to help out, but the Democratic National Committee’s Gen44 is in charge. “It’s perceived as a top-down hierarchy,” said Saleem. That doesn’t sit well with some of the young people who resent being told what to do. “I know a huge number of people who are unhappy,” said Saleem. “They wanted to be connected and involved but they weren’t.”
The Obama campaign may think that it doesn’t need to worry about youth support. A new national poll of America’s 18-to 29-year-olds by Harvard’s Institute of Politics shows that Barack Obama now leads his likely Republican opponent Mitt Romney by a 17-point margin, a gain of 6 percentage points since November 2011. But will young people be as keen to raise money and connect with friends to support the president? Will they go out and vote in huge numbers, as they did in 2008, when 2 million more under-30 Americans voted than in 2004, mostly for Obama?
A senior figure in the Obama campaign tells me that they can’t depend on self-organization in the same way they did in 2008. For one thing, the Obama campaign cannot do or say anything that compromises the president’s first term. As an incumbent, he needs to be more cautious than in 2008, when he was a long-shot candidate.
But that shouldn’t stop the campaign from tapping into the power of self-organization. The Obama campaign itself showed in 2008 that you can let people create their own communities without hurting the integrity of the core message. The Obama campaign set out clear rules of engagement that prohibited, for instance, trash talking about Sarah Palin’s family, said Rahaf Harfoush, who worked on Obama’s social-media campaign and then wrote a book about it. Whenever supporters said something that didn’t jibe with Obama’s message, the campaign made it clear that the outlier didn’t speak for Obama. This time, the Obama campaign could write a clear rider or disclosure statement to the world that the communities do not necessarily reflect the views of the campaign. The community itself could register its approval, or disapproval, of statements by members.
Obama’s digital people also point out that they don’t need to rely so heavily on MyObama.com because there are so many other social networking tools out there. Yet as Harfoush points out: “Facebook is not equipped to help people organize, as MyBo was.”
If the campaign doesn’t return to its winning ways, and fast, it risks continuing to isolate itself. Youth don’t want to be organized; they want to take action themselves. They want to participate, not be passive recipients of campaign instructions. They want to take the initiative rather than be told what to do from all-knowing campaign strategists. The Tea Party understands this; Obama once did too. It’s time now for his campaign to remember the power of “we.”