Why having ten million friends means a very different sort of Presidency
Almost all the commentary on Barack Obama’s election has focused on his skin colour. His background as an inner city community organiser will be far more important to his style of governing.
In 1985, fresh out of university, Obama spent three years working as a community organiser in the Southside of Chicago. It was a deeply unglamorous, badly paid, job. In his words:
“Sometimes I called a meeting, and nobody showed up. Sometimes we tried to hold politicians accountable, and they didn't show up. I couldn't tell whether I got more out of it than this neighbourhood [but]… I grew up to be a man, right here, in this area. "
His time there gave him a powerful sense that people can’t have solutions given to them by politicians, but have to learn how to take power for themselves. Obama was careful to train organisers from the community, and let them take control for themselves.
Obama’s old colleagues and community members universally remember that Obama always looked for common ground, even when it involved working with his opponents. While he was willing to openly challenge incompetent politicians, for instance taking a large group of residents on a bus one day to the city hall to demand the removal of asbestos, he always did so politely.
So what might this translate to in the White House?
More than anything Obama recognises that a political movement, rather than the one-off election campaigns constructed by most politicians, lives and dies on inspiration and continual communications.
Obama’s email list now consists of around 10 million people, of whom 2 million have given money to his campaign. And he’s still communicating with them, asking them their opinions and telling them what he’s doing.
In parallel to his political campaign Obama has set up a government campaign, so that his time in office can use the same campaigning techniques that his election campaign did. The transition team is making an unprecedented effort to collect supporters email addresses, so that President Obama will be able to continue communicating with millions of Americans every week. When difficult legislation on issues such as climate change and health is introduced to Congress Obama will be able to make his case directly, without using the media, to millions of voters, so that they put pressure on their congressmen.
The desire to involve, not just tell, is also clear from looking at the transition team’s website. At the top of the page is a box inviting visitors to get involved in helping victims of California’s wild fires. A traditional politician would visit, announce some aid and leave. Obama will also visit, and announce solutions, but we can be sure that President Obama will also be continually asking the American people to become part of the solution.