Obama and Grassroots Activists, Take Two

by Randy Shaw, 2012-11-27

President Obama’s decision to harness his grassroots activist supporters to pass his 2012 campaign agenda reverses one of his worst mistakes. Recall that after tens of thousands of young people mobilized millions of Obama voters to the polls in the November 2008 elections, the newly-elected President discarded them like day old newspapers. His vaunted grassroots campaign became a small-scale operation that was no match for his agenda's powerful opponents. Now, in another signal that Obama may put his supporters’ needs ahead of failed “bipartisanship,” the president hopes to mobilize his base around the tax deal, immigration reform, and other issues requiring massive grassroots participation. While some are concerned that activists will be co-opted by this effort, progressives' have a stronger hand when they confront Obama with a mobilized base. {more}

Actions are the true test, but President Obama’s plan to mobilize his grassroots campaign base shows he may have learned from past mistakes. The challenge is ensuring that activists are not used to create support for policy deals they oppose, as occurred when the scaled-down Organizing for America was not promoting the public option for health care backed by the base.

I wrote about how Obama could harness campaign workers to promote his agenda after the 2008 elections, describing how activists had to avoid becoming “yes” people for the President. The challenge today is the same: when Obama and the grassroots base are promoting specific components of the campaign agenda, conflict and co-optation can be avoided. In contrast, problems will emerge when agreement on specific policy points is lacking, which is what alienated activists from Obama on health care.

Avoiding Co-optation

The first test of Obama’s relationship with his grassroots base comes with the imminent tax deal. Labor and other progressive groups are already mobilizing around increasing taxes on the wealthy, and must do so regardless of whether their efforts are supported by the Obama Administration.

Since progressive groups are mobilizing around their agenda, not simply Obama’s, there is no risk of co-optation or conflict. If the President strikes a fiscal deal that his base opposes, it will not have been facilitated by progressive grassroots efforts. And by mobilizing their base, progressives have the ability to create pressure on Obama and the Senate that they did not have in 2009.

In the health care struggle, Obama was never clear on specific essential terms, particularly a public option. Activists mobilizing on health care understandably felt betrayed upon learning that the President had effectively bargained away the public option early in the process, while Obama rationalized that he never said it had to be part of any deal.

Activists and Obama are on the same page on raising taxes on the wealthy. And if Obama proceeds with a "grand bargain" cutting Medicare and Medicaid benefits to recipients (not medical providers), then Obama's bolstering of grassroots mobilizing on the tax deal can be used against him by activists to defeat the deal.

The far bigger risk of activist co-optation from working closely with Obama will come with immigration reform.

This issue, like health care reform, has many moving pieces. Activists mobilizing at the grassroots for a path to citizenship could find the Obama Administration imposing so many conditions on this path that they cannot support the “consensus” legislation.

Avoiding this conflict requires strong engagement by the immigrant rights and DREAM ACTivists who have already proved they can navigate national politics, and by the broader Latino community. Neither Obama nor the Democratic Party can pass an immigration reform bill that leaves the growing Latino political movement unhappy.

There is a far greater level of Latino political involvement in immigration issues than when reform was last seriously on the table in 2007. It is already clear that Latinos and their supporters will not accept the type of hasty plan that Senators Schumer and Graham are already promoting.

Labor (AFL-CIO v Change to Win/SEIU) was split the last time immigration reform was seriously considered, and its internal dispute over guest workers must get resolved early in the process. If the groups most invested in reform cannot agree on legislation, President Obama cannot fairly be accused of “co-optation” for having to choose sides.

Reason for Optimism

Having been completely wrong about Obama’s willingness to work with and mobilize his base after the 2008 election, skepticism about his second-term start is understandable. My increased optimism is based not on Obama but rather on the progressive activist base having learned its lessons from the failures of 2009.

As I argued in May 2010, it’s activism between elections that brings change. Activists must mobilize behind Obama’s progressive campaign agenda because it is their agenda, not because they are doing a favor for the President by rallying public support.

And if Obama bolsters these ongoing grassroots efforts, great. If not, they still must proceed.

That’s why the President's effort to boost grassroots activism behind his agenda has little downside. Co-optation occurs when “leaders” speak for a weak “base;” activists who mobilize broad public support for their agenda forestall this disempowering scenario.

Randy Shaw is the author of The Activist’s Handbook and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.