In the mid 1980’s presidential scholarship by political scientist Samuel Kernell argued that presidents were able to gain bargaining power and leverage with Congress by “going public.” In an environment in which politics was becoming increasingly individualized and fragmented—due to the decline of political parties, candidate-centered campaigns, and greater constituency driven pressures on legislators—presidents found it necessary to go outside of Washington to generate support for their agenda. By going over the heads of recalcitrant legislators and appealing directly to the public, presidents could get constituents to, in effect, do the work of compelling Congress to act. Whether it be through public appearances and speeches in person or through the air waves, the office of the President, aided by technology and its ability to draw media coverage, was at an advantage vis a vis a more fractured Congress.
With the advent of the Obama administration, it seems as if we may be on the verge of a new, and potentially more powerful, iteration of this “going public” dynamic. As has been much discussed, one of the Obama campaign’s greatest strengths was its organizational muscle. By not only harnessing the best technology and social networking tools of the day, but pairing it with a campaign ethos premised on community organization and grass roots mobilization, Obama was able to register scores of new voters, provide continuous updates to a 13 million strong email distribution list, and repeatedly tap its network for campaign contributions. With victory in hand, the question then became—“Now what???” How do you keep this network engaged when the immediate pressures and excitement of a campaign are gone? Can you put the network to use in trying to enact your agenda? Can these people help you govern?
Initial indications are that this is exactly what the Obama Administration is hoping to do. Over the last few weeks, we have begun to see the roll out of “Organizing for America” (See NYTimes coverage here). While the specifics of this plan are still pretty vague, one can imagine how it could be put to use in pressuring Congress. Just as people were alerted to various developments in the campaign, a similar communications apparatus could be used as the House or Senate is preparing to vote on the Economic Stimulus plan, health care reform, etc. With individuals getting specific information on their particular member of Congress, the poor staff assistants who answer the phones in congressional offices might find themselves deluged with pleas for congressional action. Having answered such calls myself and knowing how legislative offices sometimes discount mass appeals of this type—especially when they seem generated by an outside entity—the team behind Organizing for America will need to be quite sophisticated in their methodology.
On a related level, another indication that Obama is going to attempt to maintain his organizational structure is the recent ascension of Virginia Governor Tim Kaine to the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee. Hand-chosen by the President, Kaine shares not just a close relationship with Obama (he was one of Obama’s first high profile endorsers) but also a governing ethic. Both have fashioned themselves as pragmatists more than ideologues and Kaine’s success in Virginia (seen first by Mark Warner) showed the viability of a campaign premised on “expanding the map.” With Kaine now topping the Democratic Party, he seems charged not only with the more traditional party leadership responsibilities—fundraising, candidate recruitment, and organizational maintenance—but with using the tools developed by the Obama campaign to push its governing agenda. In fact, Organizing for America will be housed at the DNC. One potential outcome of this (and indeed danger) that I speculated about earlier in the campaign is that the “Democratic Party” ceases to exist in any true sense, and is replaced with the “Obama Party.” Given the unprecedented degree of marketing and branding that the Obama campaign did, one wonders if tensions could emerge down the road. Might rank and file Democrats bristle at being subsumed within the Obama machine? Might they resent pressure generated by Organizing for America? How do policy differences and conflicting agendas get resolved? While all of these questions will no doubt get answered—and probably in a messy fashion from time to time—what seems clear is that a new method and machinery for “going public” is in the offing.