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The New Politics: Barack Obama, Party of One

Three days after Obama won the White House, I happened to be in San Francisco for the annual Web 2.0 conference, moderating a panel on the impact of the Internet on the election. I began by observing that 2008 struck me as being like 1960: a campaign in which a new medium (TV then, the web now) emerged as not just important but dominant—the prime arena for political communication and engagement. The claim was meant to be provocative, spark dissent, but none of the panelists disagreed. Arianna Huffington went so far as to maintain that “were it not for the Internet, Barack Obama would not be president; were it not for the Internet, Barack Obama would not have been the Democratic nominee.”

Huffington is reliably quotable, if not always quotably reliable, but that day she was exactly right, I think. Beyond Obama’s consistent clarion message of change, the two essential ingredients of his success were his campaign’s fund-raising and organizing prowess, and neither would have been possible without the web. His team’s innovations were built on the groundbreaking work the consultant Joe Trippi had done for Howard Dean in 2004. “We were the Wright brothers proving that you could actually fly,” Trippi once told me. “Four years later, the Obama campaign is landing a man on the moon.”

The huge sums the Obama campaign harvested from small donors via the web are justly famous. But the scale of its web-enabled grassroots network was nearly as prodigious—and just as consequential. A database containing a staggering 13 million e-mail addresses, at least 3 million of them belonging to donors. Two million active users and 35,000 self-starting affinity groups on MyBarackObama .com. A million cell-phone numbers of people who requested the campaign send text messages to them. Countless names on volunteer lists from Obama’s sprawling get-out-the-vote effort on Election Day—by which time fully 25 percent of the people who pulled the lever for him were already connected to the campaign electronically.

The political implications of this network are impossible to overstate. “They have basically invented their own party that is compatible with the Democratic Party but is bigger than the Democratic Party,” the Republican media savant Stuart Stevens, who helped to elect George W. Bush twice, argues. “Their e-mail list is more powerful than the DNC or RNC. In essence, Obama [was] elected as an independent with Democratic backing—like Bernie Sanders on steroids.”

“American politics no longer fits into the old boxes,” says Simon Rosenberg, “and neither does Obama. For better or worse, what he is doing is building a new box.”

Now, having dragged electioneering kicking and screaming into the new century, Obama and his people are grappling with how to harness their network to help Obama govern. Virtually since Election Day, they have been debating the putative shape of what they like to call Obama for America 2.0, with much of the focus on a central choice: Should the network be folded into the DNC or housed within an independent entity? The risk for Obama in pursuing the former path was clear: a possible turnoff for the millions of loyalists who bought into the Obama brand but happened not to be Democrats. On the other hand, though an outside group would have given Obama a power base separate from the DNC, he would also have been less able to exercise control over its agenda.

With the selection last week of Obama’s friend, Virginia governor Tim Kaine, to chair the party, the question has more or less been answered: Much of the campaign’s grassroots operation, I’m told, will reside at the DNC. What Obama is wagering is that, with some clever branding (read camouflage), the fealty of his non-Democratic followers to him personally will overcome whatever nausea they experience owing to the partisan affiliation. And though the move has been interpreted as a sign of Obama’s empowering the DNC by having it absorb the network, I suspect that the opposite may happen. The Obama network—with its greater resources and zeal—may effectively absorb the party.

In the shorter term, it’s clear what Obama intends to do with his new machine: put it to work lobbying on behalf of his legislative agenda. Around the country, countless Obamaphiles are itching to pummel Capitol Hill with e-mail or show up at congressional town meetings. Presidents often attempt to go over the heads of Congress to the voters, but never before has one directly enlisted them to pressure their elected representatives, especially those of his own party. “Obama and his political operation have assets that no president has ever had before,” says Micah Sifry, co-founder of the Personal Democracy Forum. “We have no previous model for this—it’s completely new.”

Obama will sorely need the juice his network can provide, because the obstacles arrayed before him in rescuing the economy grow more daunting every day. Economics has never been Obama’s strong suit. During the Democratic primaries, his main point of vulnerability against Hillary Clinton was his comparative inability to speak persuasively on the topic. It wasn’t that Obama didn’t proffer a decent-enough set of economic policies. It was that he seemed incapable of building a compelling narrative around them, an explanatory framework that made sense for voters of the mounting anxiety they felt about an economy—a financial system, a mortgage market, a jobs-and-wages scenario—on the brink of unraveling. Even in September, when the credit-market meltdown proved the turning point in the general-election campaign, Obama’s glaring advantage over John McCain was one of temperament and demeanor—of projecting an air of calm and steadiness and having his shit together while his rival was flailing and skittering all over the ice—rather than substance.