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The Obama Movement


Sean Wilentz discusses how Obama sowed the seeds of his own destruction:

The dream of the Obama presidency based on a movement model of politics was devised by Marshall Ganz, a veteran union organizer and lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School, hired as an Obama campaign official and charged with training Obama volunteers—and articulated by Ganz’s ally, Peter Dreier, also an Obama adviser, a member of Progressives for Obama, and a politics professor at Occidental College. Ganz was both the theorist and practitioner of the Obama-as-movement-leader notion while Dreier played the role of publicist, heralding the new age in articles in The Huffington Post, The American Prospect, and Dissent. Ganz’s projection of the Obama presidency gained its prestige from the hallowed memories of the civil rights and farmworker union movements, imbued with high moral as well as political purposes. He posed it against the threadbare, craven horse-trading and maneuvering of parties and all previous presidential politics, which Ganz believes were “practiced to maintain, rather than change, the status quo.” The Obama experiment, a movement that arose from the grassroots apart from the Democratic Party, would usher in a purer moral and more effective leadership to the White House. Obama would not merely alter government policy but also transform the very sum and substance of the political system.

As its advocates were thrilled to point out in the aftermath of the 2008 election, their own work had ensured that Obama and his presidential campaign embodied the social movement model—and they insisted that the model was what elected him. The “real key” to Obama’s victory, Dreier wrote, was not the meltdown of the financial system in 2008, the military stalemate in Iraq, George W. Bush’s unpopularity, or even Obama’s then much celebrated charisma. The victory was owed, Dreier wrote, to “grassroots organizing.” For the first time ever, Dreier exulted, Americans had “elected a former community organizer as their President.” And just as the insurgent campaign had been transformative, so would the Obama presidency. As organizer-in-chief, President Obama would rely upon the movement that had elected him in order to reform health care, end global warming, and restore economic prosperity. Freed from the constraints of the status quo by this new political idea, the White House would be able to orchestrate through the movement and inspired through Obama’s oratory the much vaunted “change we can believe in.”

That sure sounds pretty neat, doesn’t it? So what went wrong?
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