Illustration by Open, N.Y.
We Asked Obama for Change, Got Lousy T-Shirt Instead: Ezra Klein
Guess who tweeted this: “This Black Friday, take 10% off all purchases ... with code 10%TURKEYDAY.”
Wal-Mart? Best Buy? A hedge fund trying to unload Greek bonds?
Nope. That was the official Twitter account of President Barack Obama -- excuse me, President @BarackObama. And it’s not the first time that Obama’s 2012 campaign has sounded like a commercial for Al’s Used Car Lot.
Last month, “Barack Obama” e-mailed me with the subject line “Last chance at dinner.” “Because you and I don’t have a lot of chances to have dinner together,” Obama -- or, more accurately, a campaign worker claiming to be him -- wrote, “I hope you’ll take advantage of the one that’s coming up this fall.” Then he asked me to donate some money so I could be entered into a raffle to have dinner with him.
Another e-mail from “Obama” carried the subject line, “If I don’t call you.” Again, the lure was that you could donate money to be entered into a dinner raffle. As Garance Franke-Ruta noted in the Atlantic, the e-mail writers at the Obama campaign had taken one of the most distinctive voices in American politics and reduced it to the whine of a plaintive boyfriend.
This is, of course, a fundraising effort. And it’s working. The Obama campaign has received donations from more than 1 million individuals, 98 percent of whom contributed $250 or less. At this point in the 2008 race, the Obama campaign had fewer than 400,000 donors. “This is what a grassroots campaign looks like,” the campaign brags in a graphic celebrating the million-donor mark.
Token of Thanks
Some of those donations purchased Obama swag. When you buy a hat or a shirt, you’re technically donating to the campaign, and the campaign is sending you a token of its thanks. There’s something tawdry about it. This isn’t transformational politics. This is, almost by definition, transactional politics. You give me money for my campaign, I give you a beer can holder with Vice President Joe Biden’s face on it.
I asked the Obama campaign about that seeming disconnect, but didn’t get much of a reply. “We don’t talk specifics about merchandise because we don’t talk specifics about fundraising in general,” Katie Hogan, the campaign’s deputy press secretary, told me.
In a sense, these e-mails and tweets -- and the exasperated reactions many supporters have had to them -- perfectly encapsulate one of the biggest challenges Obama faces going into 2012: resolving the yawning chasm between the sort of politics America wanted from the Obama campaign and the sort of politics the Obama administration has found to work in Washington.
Obama’s 2008 campaign wasn’t really about health-care reform or stimulus bills or financial regulation or killing Osama bin Laden. It was about something at once much bigger and more general, and perhaps because of that, much more appealing: change.
At the 2007 Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Iowa, Obama delivered a speech that proved decisive in his campaign’s victory there, and thus his national victory. But its core wasn’t a policy agenda. It was, in a way, a philosophical agenda. It was a promise about how Obama would do business more than about what business he would do.
“This party -- the party of Jefferson and Jackson; of Roosevelt and Kennedy -- has always made the biggest difference in the lives of the American people when we led, not by polls, but by principle; not by calculation, but by conviction; when we summoned the entire nation to a common purpose -- a higher purpose,” Obama said. “And I run for the presidency of the United States of America because that’s the party America needs us to be right now. A party that offers not just a difference in policies, but a difference in leadership.”
But President Obama soon found himself faced with a choice: he could change U.S. politics, or change U.S. policy. He chose changing policy. The stimulus package passed amid constant congressional horse trading, and ultimately required an 11th- hour deal that shaved $100 billion off the total and infuriated his supporters. He broke a campaign promise when he signed the 2009 budget, which was larded with earmarks. The crucial negotiations that led to health-care reform did not take place in front of C-SPAN’s cameras, as Obama had promised, and to secure the bill’s passage, the Democrats agreed to a special deal for Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson that quickly acquired the name, “the cornhusker kickback.”
The legislative process proved stronger than Obama’s campaign promises. His election didn’t usher in a new post- partisan era. If anything, partisanship grew stronger. Nor did his administration fulfill its promise to lock lobbyists out of the halls of power. A number of ex-lobbyists got special permission to work in the Obama administration. Public confidence in Washington is at a record low, and for good reason. Three months ago, the United States of America almost defaulted on its debt for no good reason (unless you consider Republican obstructionism “a good reason”). That’s not change anyone would have believed in.
Some of this isn’t Obama’s fault. Bipartisanship requires a willing partner, and Obama’s Republican partners are typified by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who said his “single most important goal” is to defeat Obama in 2012. But some of this is Obama’s fault. The White House calculated that changing policies was more important than changing Washington.
Ultimately, this election is going to turn on whether the Obama campaign can convince the American people that it made the right decision. Obama has accomplished vastly more in his first term than any of his recent predecessors. He signed into law a near-universal health-care reform and overhauled the nation’s financial regulations. He passed a stimulus bill, and followed it up in December 2010 with a set of huge tax cuts. He carried out the Troubled Asset Relief Program and conducted the stress tests that stabilized the financial system. He gave the order to kill Bin Laden and provided air support to the insurgency that ousted Muammar Qaddafi.
He has initiated a lot of change -- though perhaps not the change people thought they were getting. And perhaps that change hasn’t looked the way his supporters had hoped it would look. But, like his fundraising operation, Obama has been effective, even if his methods have not always been pretty. The question is whether that’ll be enough.
(Ezra Klein is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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