A Social Movement President?


President Obama speaks to supporters on election night, 2012. (Photo Credit: Christopher Dilts for Obama for America)

In 2008, the process that led to Barack Obama’s election was often described as more than a campaign. Many pundits saw it as a movement (here’s a good example) as did many of the folks who participated in it (and, apparently, as did their record labels; see the subtitle). Then what? As Marshall Ganz has argued, President Obama lost his “transformational” orientation–and demobilized much of the organizational structure that had built up the movement, got out the votes, and engaged a new set of political participants. The result was a series of bruising policy battles, midterm election losses for Democrats, and an enlivened conservative movement in place of what was supposed to be the continued flowering of new progressive policies carried through by a wave of continued grassroots organizing.

In 2012, Obama was back on the campaign trail, working once again to connect with and energize the grassroots. This time around, things felt a little more campaign-like (see the October “Ground Wars” Dialogue for some relevant thoughts) and bit less movement-like (I haven’t seen any 2012 commemorative albums hit the market yet–although Mariah Carey has apparently released a victory song). But the early signs seem to indicate that Obama is planning on taking a more grassroots—or at least more public—approach to the next round of policy challenges on the agenda. As the New York Times reports:

As he prepares to meet with Congressional leaders at the White House on Friday, aides say, Mr. Obama will not simply hunker down there for weeks of closed-door negotiations as he did in mid-2011, when partisan brinkmanship over raising the nation’s debt limit damaged the economy and his political standing. He will travel beyond the Beltway at times to rally public support for a deficit-cutting accord that mixes tax increases on the wealthy with spending cuts.

Admittedly, “travel[ling] beyond the Beltway” doesn’t exactly seem like the most ambitious movement organizing effort ever, but the article does repeatedly mention the lessons the administration claims to have learned from the first four years and their desire to hit the streets in the next four years. Will Obama eventually be remembered as a movement president? That remains to be seen, but at least for the moment, it’s still a possibility.


Filed under Daily Disruption

3 responses to “A Social Movement President?

  1. Jeff Goodwin

    The idea that Obama is or ever was a “social movement president” is absurd. The notion rests upon either some elementary analytic confusions or a misunderstanding of Obama (or both). Movements fight and push politicians and other elites. Sometimes they seek to get rid of such elites. They are, well, contentious. They are neither cheerleaders nor shock troops for politicians. Otherwise the word becomes meaningless.

    Now one can certainly imagine independent movements that have their own agenda and program deciding to contest elections, running individuals from and responsible to their base. There was a time when “Lula” in Brazil and Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti approximated this description. Certainly the delegates whom the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party sent to the Democratic Party convention in 1964 are a good example of movement activists who have entered the electoral game.

    But Obama is light years from such figures. He is neither an activist in nor responsible to any independent movement. Obama is a professional politician who is especially popular (less so in 2012 than 2008) and who can draw large crowds (smaller in 2012 than 2008) and inspire an impressive number of people to volunteer their time and money for his electoral campaigns (fewer in 2012 than 2008). But these volunteers work for him; he doesn’t work for them.

    However large and energetic, an electoral campaign is not a movement. And campaign volunteers do not magically become a movement if the politician they worked for decides to keep them busy after the campaign. An electoral campaign can be a movement tactic, but that requires an independent movement that decides to contest elections. We haven’t seen anything like this in the U.S. for a long time.


  2. Matthew Baggetta

    Well, if there’s one thing many pundits excel at, it’s absurdity!
    Seriously, though, Jeff raises some excellent points about whether or not movement scholars could ever consider the Obama campaigns–or the campaigns of any mainstream American politician–a movement. How movement scholars define things and how other pundits and people think and talk about things is, of course, a different matter. It would seem that when the Obama campaign/administration does things like meet behind closed doors with insiders (or use massive databases to decide to buy TV advertising during reruns of “The A-Team”: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/13/us/politics/obama-data-system-targeted-tv-viewers-for-support.html?smid=pl-share), he loses “movement points” in the popular consciousness. But when the Obama team gets out and does some public rallying and on-the-ground organizing, he earns some “movement points” back. As with much of the popular mythology surrounding presidents, the question of whether or not he is remembered as a “movement president” (or any other kind of president) may not need to have much grounding in a movement reality.


  3. Eric Hodgdon

    Neither social or moving / movement or President.
    Truthful descriptions count more than common illusions.
    Hyped two party politics – true.
    Constitutional President – false.
    Will the truth of Congress creating this virtual Dictatorship be told?
    It’s hard for ‘mainstream’ news outlets to come to terms with reality when truth gets in the way.

    The War Powers Resolution contains an way for an executive to use armed forces, which is not in the Constitution. Why ‘mainstream’ news outlets ignore this is unknown. Granted the Supreme Court says it’s OK to bypass Article V, and change the Constitution’s purpose in restraining the Federal Government. Decent citizens disagree on this for fundamental reasons.

    Intentionally deploying US armed forces to kill people in foreign lands requires more than a whim of fancy. Killing people requires a Declaration of War after careful and sober debate in the House. This is why they included the words in our Constitution 225 years ago. Much debate over concentrating authorities in a single person was made back then. And it’s abhorrent and ethically immoral not to discuss this simple, easy, and quick way for a single person to go around ordering the innocent to DIE.

    Civilized people call it murder. What do ‘mainstream’ news outlets call it?


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