Colin Delany September 2, 2009

Obama's Online Army Creaks into Action on Health Care Reform (Or, What a Difference a Year Makes)

Also published on techPresident

Watching Obama’s online army creak into action on health care reform is painful, particularly for someone who wrote about the ruthless efficiency of his online campaign for president. The enemies may be somewhat different this time around, even if their tactics feel familiar, but the biggest gap is between Obama’s grassroots politicking then and now.

The ability of the townhallers and death panelists to grab the attention of the media and chattering class caught many by surprise, but that kind of surprise didn’t seem to matter so much to the Obamans a year ago. Remember Sarah Palin’s VP nomination acceptance speech? The next day, Obama’s fundraisers played their list like a musical instrument, ginning up more political donations in a 24-hour-period than anyone, ever.

By contrast, Obama for America has struggled to get into the health care debate in any meaningful way over the past few weeks. In that time, Obama has been punched from all sides — from conservatives, of course, using both legitimate arguments and the made-up fantasies of the right-wing fringe, ads followed him on vacation — part of a $60 million blitz by interest groups on all sides — even as his (past) support for a single-payer system six-healthcare-lobbyists-per-Congressmember will give them a run for their money). Not surprisingly, the White House has launched an online campaign to counter misinformation, including house party/pep rallies, a dedicated website with a social-media/tell-us-your-story angle (blow-back naturally ensued).

The targets? Rumor-mongers of course (“special interests”. And Obama’s organizers aren’t just preaching to the members of their existing choir — taking a page from the presidential campaign’s playbook, they’re reaching out to the unconverted by running Google Ads on likely queries. For instance, search for “death panels” and you might find something like this:

Obama death panel Google Ad

Obama death panel Google Ad

Which will lead to a landing page like this one. Again as the campaign did in 2008, they’re also running ads on the name “Barack Obama,” such as the one to the right that appeared on and which led again to not just financially:

When Bird arrived in Wisconsin last week, he recognized all the familiar hallmarks of an underdog fight. Gone were the 44 field offices across the state where Obama organizers had worked during the campaign; now Bird spent his visit searching for power outlets in Wisconsin coffee shops and conducting conference calls at sidewalk cafes. Gone were the 100 paid staffers who orchestrated an Obama victory in the state; now OFA employed one person in Wisconsin, Grandone, who hoped to hire two or three assistants if the budget allowed.

“Right now,” Grandone said, “we are kind of building this thing as we fly it.”

Building an airplane in flight is a process always fraught with danger, but at least Obama’s presidential campaign had nearly two years to glue the wings on and get the engines running. OFA can build on their example and their legacy of goodwill among supporters, but a 100-fold reduction in professional boots-on-the-ground can’t possibly help, particularly when you’re dropped overnight into what could be the most important legislative battle of Obama’s presidency.

Politics is hard! So if you’ve wondered why other presidential campaigns didn’t equal Obama online in 2008, take note — even his own campaign’s successor organization has yet to do it. A year ago I wondered if Obama’s online army would target Congress, and now we know that the answer is yes. What I wouldn’t have guessed is that they’d have already beaten their swords into plowshares, right when the fighting was fixin’ to start.


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