What happened to ‘Yes we can’?

May 4, 2012

At this pivotal moment in the presidential race, President Barack Obama and his re-election team need to focus on a key question that could influence the outcome of this year’s election:

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But this time, “Yes we can” has been replaced by a new modus operandi for the Obama campaign.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.”

14 comments

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“Yes we can” has now become, “No, we couldn’t”, BIGTIME

Posted by DeeMerks | Report as abusive

Obamy is a flake – he had nothing
So now its simply lies & deceit

Posted by jackdanielsesq | Report as abusive

As soon as Obama was elected, his previously two-way communictions style immediately changed. His website stopped asking for people’s opinions and started enlisting their support for various agenda items. I took my name off the list. I was 68 at the time, so it isn’t just the young who don’ like being used. At the time I blamed his advisors. Remember blaming the advisors?? It felt more comforting than admitting we’d been had.

Posted by JBookly | Report as abusive

Obama cannot simply create a new movement because many of his followers of the first one are feeling betrayed. Does anybody remember Obama girl? Let’s be honest here, Obama or anybody else who creates the movement he did in his first run for President only get’s that chance once. You have to follow through and I believe Obama failed to follow through. Now of course he is asking for more time, should we give him more time?
Can we blame others like the Republicans for putting up resistance and causing Obama’s plans to fail? Some will no doubt argue that. Let’s remember Congress was controlled for two years by Democrat’s when Obama took office. i am not saying he was given the freedom to pass anything. But a agenda took place by Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi that apparently took center stage. Now we need to ask ourselves as a Country if what they did helped or hurt America? We can judge Obama, he has had 3 1/2 years in office. Mitt Romney can be judged on his past political office. So we have two people we can compare their success and failures. Let’s do that and not fall into believing what the other one says about him.

Posted by jscott418 | Report as abusive

Obama’s biggest mistake during his Presidency is reaching out to the Republicans, the same group who prioritize on denying his re-election. In doing so, he disappointed the very same base, whom he seeks re-election.

Posted by KyuuAL | Report as abusive

No matter who wins this and every other election, The People lose.

Posted by bryanX | Report as abusive

Wealthy corporate and inviduals (Coke brothers) own our electons and their puppets these days. We have President Obama who is a semi-puppet of Wall Street and the large corporations and we have Mitt Romney a total puppet of our “democratic” oligarchy. We should be lucky Obama got as much accomplished ( saving GM, equal pay act, student loans, a watered down health care bill, stimulus bill) the first two years. I agree he capitulated to the GOP and lost such momentum and precious time. How could he and his staff believe he could work with them. Thank God we had Rep. Pelosi as speaker.

In sum, Obama reads the tea leaves and knows he has to play the game to win re-election because of how we fund our campaigns. The “people” should mean something to him; he does indeed need to re-establish his approach and get the matter. But, maybe he fears an “Occupy the White House” tactic ? If the masses revolt, Obama looses. He has to keep them at bay;top down campaign events are the only way for him to win ! How sad.

Posted by slimman | Report as abusive

What happened to ‘Yes we can’?

It turned out that Obama is an Elitist fraud.

He turned his back on the left seeking the reasonable prudential path of the middle ground and compromise with evil – thereby showing those that put them there that NOTHING ever changes – and thereby teaching them, “no you can’t.”

In a way, by being a spineless feckless coward, he’s done more damage then Bush.

He’s no the one. He’s the rich’s BOY.

Posted by Lord_Foxdrake | Report as abusive

Clearly, the case as it is today with the Obama Presidency is that although many of “We” who voted for this man, pinning our hopes and desire for change from the draconian lawlessness of the Bush Dictatorship, and seeing this as what was commonly thought to be the “Second Term of Jimmy Carter”, were profoundly disappointed in the unveiling of Barack Obama to be just another politician, someone who was willing to promise anything, say anything, just to get elected.More stunning, rather more stinging in the heart of most Americans is the fact that there is No distinction between the way the Presidency has been run, from that of the horrible years under the Despotic Bush regime. Still the same old lies, manipulation and deceit coming out of the propaganda apparatus.We voted for a change in our direction, what we got instead was a continuation down the path of destruction. Sad, but to quote George Bush Jr., Fool me once, shame on you, Fool me twice, Shame on Me.
Sorry, but like so many like us, either current or Former Democrats, we want Obama to just go away, you are such a disappointment.I think it might be time to sit this election out, it is just not worth the bother to vote anymore.May all Politicians Live in Interesting Times.

Posted by STRAIGHTMAN | Report as abusive

Hey Don, you know Obama was simply lying. He was prepared to say anything to get elected and you libs down at the Rotman school(none have ever run a business, but hilariously teach business) bought into it hook line and sinker.

Good ole’ U of Toronto libs – suckers to the core.

Posted by eleno | Report as abusive

With the Republicans blocking so many of the initiatives proposed by the Democrats, no wonder Obama could not get so much more of his agenda accomplished.

For all those who are disappointed in Obama, look at the alternative? Republican control would mean more tax breaks for the rich, more kick backs for large corporations, more power to the special interest groups and goodbye to any type of development for renewable energy.

I think that is worse.

Posted by CitizenCM | Report as abusive

ANS. to QUESTION: The party of “Yes, we can” confronted the party of “No”, we won’t. The result was stagnation.

Posted by SanPa | Report as abusive

“Yes, we can” ran into the screaming freight train of “No, we can’t.” The Republicans are the party of contractions: shouldn’t, can’t, won’t, mustn’t – - the party of no progress. That coupled with those folks who fall for Karl Rove’s lies (Karl Rove – - the Joseph Goebbels of the Republican party.)

Posted by explorer08 | Report as abusive

You did! Kash for Klunkers to buy Toyotas, failed loans to Solyndra, and the money pit Obamacare. Now every citizen has $50,094 of debt of the now $15 Trillion (seems being illegal has its advantages). How long until we riot and have a run on the banks when we have to start our own austerity measures?

Posted by oneofthecrowd | Report as abusive

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