Blogs > HNN > It's Time to Mobilize Obama's Army for a Values Revolution

Feb 19, 2009 7:29 am


It's Time to Mobilize Obama's Army for a Values Revolution



The story of Barack Obama’s brilliant grassroots organizing as a candidate is now campaigning legend. But since Election Day, the “what do we do now” question has vexed Obama’s Army. Two million activists and an email list of thirteen million “slacktivists” constitute a potent political force. If Obama only uses these idealists as an amen corner, he will miss a chance to deliver the change he promised and millions seek. President Obama should mobilize his army of supporters to launch a mass movement fostering collective and individual responsibility.

Earlier this month, “Organizing for America,” Obama’s organization reincarnated, arranged 3200 Economic Recovery House Meetings to support Obama’s stimulus package. With Republicans attacking the bill as overloaded with pork, even Obama’s supporters needed reassurance. President Obama recorded a forceful, inspiring, four-minute video, followed by a thirteen minute video with the new Democratic National Chairman. Governor Tim Kaine answered a half dozen questions culled from an impressive 30,000 queries supporters sent about the package.

Mobilizing to support the stimulus was a logical first step. If Obama had failed or even lost too much political capital passing the stimulus, his presidency would have suffered. But becoming the stimulus bill’s public lobby risks making “Organizing for America,” part of the “politics as usual” Obama repudiated. What America really needs is a deeper, more transformational conversation about individual and communal values, using home meetings and social action as platforms to achieve real change. Without being rooted in a renewed American nationalism, bipartisanship will remain a slogan.

“Organizing for America” should learn from the initial success – and eventual failure -- of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Blue Eagle” campaign promoting the NRA, the National Recovery Administration. This early New Deal program began flamboyantly. The president invited Americans who followed the NRA’s business, labor or consumer codes to display an iconic blue eagle with the slogan “We Do Our Part.” Suddenly, in the summer and fall of 1933, the image appeared everywhere, on store fronts and front windows, in shops and factories.

The hoopla engaged millions otherwise paralyzed by despair. It confirmed Americans’ impression that Roosevelt was providing a “New Deal.” Alas, all that good will, communal energy, and national vision dissipated quickly. The codes for fixing prices and limiting competition soon had many mocking the NRA as the National Run Around. When the Supreme Court declared the NRA unconstitutional, even Roosevelt was relieved.

The day before Inauguration Day, an estimated one million Americans joined Obama’s national day of service, volunteering for more than 13,000 service projects. At Washington’s Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium thousands assembled 80,000 care packages for American troops. This impressive outpouring, along with the grassroots power of Obama’s Army during the campaign, reflected Team Obama’s talent in tapping Americans’ idealism and nationalism. Millions agree with Obama that President George W. Bush should have mobilized Americans after 9/11, rather than sending us shopping.
Yet the day of service lacked the branding of Roosevelt’s Blue Eagle. Moreover, like the NRA and the Economic Recovery House Meetings, the occasional burst of voluntarism is not enough. One of America’s most famous community organizers used to challenge neighborhood leaders by asking them “where they put their time, energy and money.” Those are “the true tests of what we value,” Barack Obama insisted in Chicago during the 1980s.

“Organizing for America” must be slicker and more profound, better identified as a force calling on Americans to serve their community while transforming all the good will Obama has generated – even after his rough week – into a transformational conversation about how we live our lives and do politics. The times demand more than the brass bands and blue eagles of the 1930s or the house meetings and mass emailings we have seen so far. If President Obama can get millions investing their time, energy and money into fulfilling his vision, with the same enthusiasm they invested into his campaign, his presidency will be monumental, with the occasional hiring lapses and concessions to Congressional pork upstaged by the renewed citizenship covenant he has so far romanticized but not yet designed.



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Edrene S McKay - 3/2/2009

I agree with your analysis, Gil. Your comments inspired me to send this to the White House today:

Dear President Obama,

I teach history at NorthWest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville, Arkansas, and would like to call your attention to a short piece written by fellow historian, Gil Troy (McGill University). It's entitled "It's Time to Mobilize Obama's Army for a Values Revolution." You can read the entire entry at the History News Network: http://hnn.us/blogs/entries/63039.html. In evaluating "Organizing for America," Professor Troy concluded:

"President Obama should mobilize his army of supporters to launch a mass movement fostering collective and individual responsibility...."Organizing for America" must be slicker and more profound, better identified as a force calling on Americans to serve their community while transforming all the good will Obama has generated … into a transformational conversation about how we live our lives and do politics. The times demand more than the brass bands and blue eagles of the 1930s or the house meetings and mass emailings we have seen so far. If President Obama can get millions investing their time, energy, and money into fulfilling his vision, with the same enthusiasm they invested into his campaign, his presidency will be monumental…."

I agree with Professor Troy and want to let you know that the movement has already begun in northwest Arkansas. Let me give you some examples:

(1) Inspired by your call to service on the day before your inauguration, I did my small part by placing a receptacle at a local grocery store for donations to a food pantry. I got a little worried the first week because I was the only one putting non-perishables in the bin, but it didn't take long before people caught on. Now the bin overflows with contributions that have to be picked up every couple of days. People have been very generous.

(2)In response to your invitation to discuss the "American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan," OMNI-NWACC, the student organization that I advise, invited students, faculty, staff, and members of the community to participate in a "house party" that resulted in a grass roots effort to help the unemployed in our area. You can read all about it at my "Organizing for America" blog: http://hnn.us/blogs/entries/63039.html.

(3) Your withdrawal of troops from Iraq and deployment of troops to Afghanistan gives our community the opportunity to consider how we can meet the needs of returning veterans and their families and how we can ultimately bring peace to the Middle East. To begin the process, OMNI-NWACC is sponsoring a series of films and discussions during March and April called "When the Troops Come Home." We will take the audience through the battlefield experience, the rehabilitation process, and the experiences of the families left behind. In this effort, we have gotten overwhelming support from the college and from professionals in the community. The events are all posted on Organizing for America: http://preview.tinyurl.com/bpfs9a. We'll let you know how it goes.

In our community, events related to some of the most important issues of the day - the economy, veterans and their families, and bringing peace to the Middle East - are being planned through Organizing for America. We are inspired and energized by the opportunity to engage in participatory democracy and, as Professor Troy suggests, investing "our time, energy, and money" into fulfilling, not only your vision for America, but our own.

Considering the challenges ahead, we are trying to establish a model of non-partisanship by inviting Democrats, Republicans, and independents to join us and work together on these issues - including key areas of the budget: energy, healthcare, and education. We will support you when we can, but will let you know if we think you are going off course too.

In the interim, I wonder if you and your staff would give some thought to Professor Troy's model. Having that kind of leadership coming directly from the White House would be great!

Sincerely,

Edrene S. McKay, Ph.D.