Return of the Three-Point Shot
By Al Giordano
Last summer, prior to the Democratic National Convention in Denver and candidate Obama's choice of Senator Joe Biden as vice presidential nominee, we talked a lot here at The Field about what we called "the three point shot." Some of us had hoped that a VP would be chosen from outside the three point line (the Washington DC beltway) in order to allow nominee Obama to "run against Washington," and also because changing the ways that Washington operates has been wrapped up in the political DNA of Obama's rise from the start. It's what brought so much of the authentic grassroots to his army.
To the extent there have been some banana peels causing slips or stumbles along the path of the transition and early days of the Obama presidency, they've virtually all been due to the President's attempts to put the apparatus of Washington to work for him before that bureaucracy and system has gone through much change. The imposed withdrawal of former Senator Tom Daschle as health care czar and Health and Human Services Secretary came as a result o uot;> // --> f Daschle's own ballast that kept him too deeply stuck in that system and its trappings. The appointment of former Senator Clinton as Secretary of State, the retention of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and the resurrection of many figures from the 1990s Clinton administration, were understandable moves (and some - like Clinton at State - have already begun to work better than I, at least, had anticipated - more on that in a future post) in terms of removing some of those forces as obstacles.
But the delay in realizing that all-important part of Obama's campaign that had from the beginning signified a storming of the gates of DC has made the transition and nascent presidency, in key ways, less of a crusade. In two words: less fun. Then again, governing will rarely bring the adrenaline of the contests over who gets to govern.
And yet, here we are. The "fun" part came back today, in full glory. The President's visit to economically devastated Elkhart, Indiana put him back outside - in basketball terms - that mythic three point line. Peter Baker of the New York Times, the "pool reporter" covering the flight to Indiana, quoted White House Senior Advisor David Axelrod on the airplane ride out of DC:
"One thing that we learned over two years," Axelrod added, "is that there's a whole different conversation in Washington than there is out here. If I had listened to the conversation in Washington during the campaign for president, I would have jumped off a building about a year and a half ago."
He continued: "The American people are desperate for us to act. They understand that we're in crisis. They're living it every single day "Obviously the place we are going to today is one of the more severely hit communities. But all communities are. They're not into the machinations that folks in Washington are. They're not sweating this detail or that detail. They're certainly not buying into the argument that, you know, the New Deal was a failure and we shouldn't intervene."
In other words, now that the first step - co-opting those inside levers of power in Washington that co uld be domesticated without a fight - has been completed, the second step - harnessing the power of the people to get out its whip and discipline the insider stragglers - has begun anew.
The Elkhart "town meeting" was filled to capacity with 2,500 citizens. And Obama wasted no time in getting back to the acknowledgement of the divide between Washington and the people and organizing the latter to push upon the former:
We can no longer posture and bicker and resort to the same failed ideas that got us into this mess in the first place - and that the American people rejected at the polls this past November. You didn't send us to Washington because you were hoping for more of the same. You sent us there with a mandate for change, and the expectation that we would act quickly and boldly to carry it out - and that is exactly what I intend to do as President of the United States...
I also can't tell you with one hundred percent certainty that everything in this plan will work exactly as we hope. But I can tell you with complete confidence that endless delay or paralysis in Washington in the face of this crisis will bring only deepening disaster.
We've had a good debate. Now it's time to act. That's why I am calling on Congress to pass this bill immediately. Folks here in Elkhart and across America need help right now, and they can't afford to keep on waiting for folks in Washington to get this done.
This is what Obama meant during the campaign in his oft-misunderstood and oft-distorted statements of admiration for the late president Ronald Reagan's governing style. Not since Reagan has any US president successfully "governed against Washington" in order to get Washington off its bloated lazy ass and moving. Those who saw it as a left-right dialectic were mistaken: it is a below-above dichotomy, or, better put, the return of the outside to put the inside back inside proper limits to its power.
The President looked, at least on live TV, absolutely thrilled to be out of Washington and back among the people. He facilitated a participatory question and answer session in that meeting of 2,500 people - even calling on raised hands up in the nosebleed seats. He made the point that the questions weren't screened. And when one woman asked him whether he would take up Fox News' right-wing screamer Sean Hannity's invitation to the President to have a beer with him, it was clear that there indeed had been no screening or planting of questions. Additionally, when some in the crowd sought to boo the woman, Obama defended her questions and her right to speak. (That, too, is "bipartisanship," also known as respect for "the other.")
I can't remember in my lifetime a president of the US that subjected himself to such an unscripted mass participatory meeting as Obama did today. And yet he was in his element. Intellectually curious people get bored when all chaos as been locked out of our realities, after all. He had the crowd at "hello." And he had them even more so at goodbye. More significantly, he positioned himself as with the people outside the three point line, as their moral representative to push their institutional representatives to, well, represent them, dammit.
This takes place of course in the context of the roll out of Organizing for America. The reports of last weekend's first 300 house meetings out of 3,500+ are beginning to trickle in. The Indianapolis Star reports:
For Peter and Mollie Williams, the election of Barack Obama might have been the culmination of their efforts as community organizers.
But they did not want it to be the end.
On Saturday, they opened their Lawrence Township home for a public discussion on the new president's economic stimulus proposal, one of about 3,000 such meetings scheduled this weekend throughout the country at the urging of Obama and the national Democratic Party...
About 16 similar meetings were planned in Central Indiana.
We don't yet know how many such meetings were held in Northern Indiana near Elkhart, but Politico has some relevant national numbers:
5,265 - Number of stories received in the last 24 hours in writing/video via the economic recovery hotline
3,587 - Number of total meetings in all 50 states plus DC
2,328 - Number of different zip codes that had meetings
1,579 - Number of unique cities that had meetings
429 - Number of congressional districts (435 in all) that had house meetings
255 - Number of meetings in Florida (POTUS heads there tomorrow)
149 - Number of meetings in Texas 126-Number of meetings in Georgia
63 - Number of congressional Districts that had 10 or more events
Sean Quinn of 538, not surprisingly, has the kind of details in his write up that reveal the important basics that traditional journalists almost always overlook:
I gathered along with 35 other people at Yvette Lewis' house in Bowie, Maryland for an incredibly well-structured "stimulus party." Approximately 2/3 were women, the majority African-American, and nearly all over age 30...
Economically, the Bowie house party took place in a well-off suburban setting, but there was a socioeconomic range among the attendees. Some, like Nannette Johnson, had recently lost jobs and spoke of children who had lost jobs. Most were Democrats, but a few were independents and "Obamacans." Many knew each other, most were local and had volunteered out of the Largo, MD field office during the campaign, but one woman, Tricia Barnett, had driven nearly two hours from St. Mary's County in southern Maryland "to be part of an active group."
Yvette Lewis played host and ringleader, and right off the bat she announced that this wasn't just a party, but "a working session." Most importantly she explained, while Lewis would provide the space and the meeting structure, the concept wouldn't work unless all took ownership, and all took action. Working together and feeding off each other's energy, individuals would make choices and ultimately do the work themselves.
The inane reports by some news agencies that these numbers are somehow underwhelming only underscore the media's lack of understanding about how organizing projects are built from the ground up. We've been over that in previous posts here. Just compare what is happening now with what usually occurrs with a change of the party in power at the White House. When Clinton became president in 1993, no such effort was made. Instead, local Democratic Party organizations - each with their own preexisting officers, factions and internal power struggles - became the only possible loci for anybody that wanted to be involved face to face with others from the campaign, and most newcomers that did attend a local party meeting probably wanted to run out screaming and in any case never came back.
By taking the locus of convocational power outside of the party institutions and onto the turf of the volunteers - their homes - Organizing for America has already pretty much assured its future successes. The instructions were not to make motions, seek seconds, debate resolutions or one-up-man-ship over superior grasp of Robert's Rules of Order, but, rather, for the participants to share their own stories of how the economic crisis impacts them and their families.
In one fell swoop, the Democratic Party has created a new and wider foundation for itself through this single weekend of modestly attended house meetings. The point wasn't to send all the troops into a frenzy of outraged phone calls to members of Congress, but, rather, to begin to build a lasting organizational muscle to shape public opinion and the polls that members of Congress slavishly allow to guide them: to bring the conversation outside of Washington and away from its conversation-killing habits.
Which brings us back to the "three point shot." When we talked about it last summer, it was often in the context of the possibility that Virginia Governor Tim Kaine would be a smart choice for vice president to keep that grassroots movement pushing on Washington from the outside. It didn't happen that way, and yet it is happening now. Kaine is now at the helm of the DNC and co-architect, with veteran campaign organizers, of the Organizing for America project.
So the exact path to outside of the three-point line was not something I or anybody else was able to forecast last summer. And yet here it is. Three points. Swish! Tomorrow it will be made anew from Fort Myers, Florida, with some real bipartisan backing from that state's Republican Governor Charlie Crist (does anybody really think that would have been possible had the president taken the advice of the nuclear war option enthusiasts of stale partisanship?). He shoots. He scores. And the folks in the bleachers have leaped a giant step closer to regaining our legitimate ownership of the stadium.
Tonight, starting in ten minutes, the President will hold a live prime time televised press conference. The drinking game that will assuredly get you tipsy will be to down a shot every time he answers with the words, "Elkhart, Indiana." (The opening statement is embargoed, but I can say that you'll have to down two shots just at that.)
My guess is that he'll pull the three-point shot out on another lethargic institution inside the Beltway - the White House press corps - making it visible to all that they, too, have to listen to the word of the vast American public out there. Wonder which boy on the bus will be slow enough to walk right into the path of the ball and get beaned on national TV.
Update: Some real time comments on the press conference... In response to the first question from AP, the President mentions Elkhart twice. Drink!
Update II: He makes the important point that the Stimulus Bill doesn't end the legislative work to be done. (More battles are upcoming.)
Update III: Third question on whether the President will now abandon "bipartisanship." Obama: His overtures "were not designed to get short term votes. They were designed to build up trust over time." Then he brings it back to "what's happening to the people of Elkhart..." (Drink!) Speaks of the "continuing efforts to engage with my Republican colleagues" and speaks to the "tone" in Washington. Notes that "we can deal with" some worthy programs not in the Stimulus package "later." "I'm going to keep on engaging. I hope that everybody is willing to give a little bit" (in the House-Senate conference committee on the Stimulus Bill).
Update IV: Paraphrasing the President, here: Part of the problem in Elkhart (gulp!) where they make recreational vehicles is that people who want to buy them can't get loans to buy them and companies that make them can't get loans in this credit slowdown. "If we get things right, starting next year we can start to see significant improvement." Cites as two biggest yardsticks of whether the Stimulus succeeds are, one, whether it creates or saves four million jobs and, two, whether loans and credit get moving again.
Update V: This is history making. The president calls upon a blogger - Sam Stein at the Huffington Post - at a nationally televised prime time press conference. Gate, consider yourself crashed.
Update VI: He brings out the bipartisan stick: "Some members of my party have thought that only money will solve problems." Whack!
Update VII: After the press conference, a comment on CNN: "The press has said he's 'explaining what's going on in Washington to the American people,' but I got the sense he was explaining the American people to Washington DC." Bingo. Meanwhile, over on Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor, Dick Morris is a bit tongue-tied trying to find holes in "what was obviously a very impressive performance." O'Reilly complains that Obama's answers to the questions were too long!