What happened to ‘Yes we can’?
How do they get the âweâ back?
Good question. We all remember how Obama broke new ground in the 2008 campaign by using social media as a powerful political tool. Obamaâs 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 âYes we can,â it wasnât just a message of hope for the future â it was a confirmation statement of collective power. They werenât 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 âweâ was awesome to behold. The âweâ not only raised hope for people but also unprecedented sums of money for the old-fashioned campaign on the ground.
But this time, âYes we canâ has been replaced by a new modus operandi for the Obama campaign. Itâs âWe know you.â
The Democrats are investing heavily in whatâs 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 â 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 âweâ? We havenât heard about it since the 2008 victory. âThey built the largest online community in the history of the presidency,â says Andrew Rasiej, founder of Personal Democracy Media, which tracks the intersection of technology and politics. âBut then they stopped talking to them and engaging themâ â 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: âLots of us believe he squandered the massive political constituency that was drawn to his message of hope and change.â 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 Obamaâs first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, didnât believe in the power of âwe.â âThey went back to the bully pulpit of the presidency. They literally put on the armor of 20th century communications.â
That attitude seems to have influenced the 2012 campaign. In Los Angeles, 33-year-old film executive Haroon âBoonâ Saleem can see the difference. Back in 2008, he organized lots of events to galvanize young professionals â 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 didnât come from the Obama organization. âWe just did it,â says Saleem. This time, Saleem is planning to help out, but the Democratic National Committeeâs Gen44 is in charge. âItâs perceived as a top-down hierarchy,â said Saleem. That doesnât sit well with some of the young people who resent being told what to do. âI know a huge number of people who are unhappy,â said Saleem. âThey wanted to be connected and involved but they werenât.â
The Obama campaign may think that it doesnât 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 canât 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 presidentâs first term. As an incumbent, he needs to be more cautious than in 2008, when he was a long-shot candidate.
But that shouldnât 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 Palinâs family, said Rahaf Harfoush, who worked on Obamaâs social-media campaign and then wrote a book about it. Whenever supporters said something that didnât jibe with Obamaâs message, the campaign made it clear that the outlier didnât 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.
Obamaâs digital people also point out that they donât need to rely so heavily on MyObama.com because there are so many other social networking tools out there. Yet as Harfoush points out: âFacebook is not equipped to help people organize, as MyBo was.â
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. Itâs time now for his campaign to remember the power of âwe.â