I got to DC right before the big crowds started to arrive, in time to watch the jumbotrons and bleachers get ready for the masses, and the vendors kick themselves for not putting Obama’s face on more crap. (Oh, we’re all having fun with it. Even our art director is making “baracklava” for the Fast staff to eat while we watch the inauguration.) DC inspires a certain amount of awe on a normal day, but when the buildings trot out their best party clothes, it’s hard not to be filled with a sense of pride.
And this time, it really is different. Cute kids, regal wife, oh yeah, did I mention they’re black?!? — and Facebook basically elected him. Could it get any better than this?
There’s a big difference, evidently, to being a private citizen running for office, and an elected official subject to reams and reams of outdated restrictions: My sources close to the new media wing of the Transition Team say that there is already a lot of head-shaking going on at the madness that is federal bureaucracy. They are definitely not in Iowa anymore.
I used my visit to DC to catch up with Joe Trippi, of Howard Dean Campaign fame, and Chris Hughes, Director of Online Oranizing for the Obama Campaign, who were both on a panel at the National Press Club titled Ideas for Change in America. The audience was filled with non-profiteers, bloggers, activists, business folk and some MSM. The mood was earnest. The panel, though polite, had some important points to make about the dream of a true open source democracy.
Joe Trippi got down to business first. As exceptional as the civic engagement has been, things are going to be different now that the campaign has arrived at its destination. It’s a matter of money and design. “Government is not going to be replaced, even with Barack Obama in the administration, because the impediments to the way the government works are still in place. And that change will have to come from the people themselves.”
His point is partly about money — it will take awhile for elected officials to become weaned from the teat of lobbyist cash. They don’t know how internet fundraising works, and even if they do, cannot trust that it will work for them. (Congress only got permission to post videos on YouTube a few months ago. Headslap.) “The reason that members of Congress don’t want to make the move [to the internet, for fundraising] is because they can’t say no to lobbyist money or they’ll get beat,” he said simply. “They’re not sure that the citizen base will be there.” Big money donors, he says, lead to a transactional form of government, people expect to get what they pay for. But the problems we have — climate change, terrorism, the economy – are not going to be solved by transactions. They’re just too broad. “That’s the hope of a transformational government, which we don’t have yet.” The implication: Good luck with the transformation if you’re dealing with a government full of quids who are there to deliver a pro quo.
Hughes, the impossibly fresh-faced online organizing guru, agrees that technology is not going to be enough. “Just because you have a lot of tools out there, and people who are starting to be thirsty again for civic engagement…is not enough. That only sets the stage of actually what’ s going to be possible.” The first challenge, he says, is one of leadership, in which the Obama administration must maintain the ideals of the campaign while the structure of the government struggles to catch up with the modern world. And he’ll need to staff up. “The tools don’t mean anything if you don’t invest heavily in the people and the infrastructure to support them.”
Trippi agrees — but points out what should have been obvious. “Past budgets of the White House are not set up for this,” he says. “The way a member of Congress staffs his office, there is no budget for new media support.” The government itself is in no position to move at internet speed. He tells a story of having to file donor lists to the FEC during the 2000 Dean campaign. Deluged with small donations, they wanted to feed the momentum, and be more transparent, by making the donor list public more quickly. But the FEC rules required that the information be filed with them first – on paper. Previous campaigns, with their big money donations, wouldn’t have killed so many trees, but the Dean campaign was unprecedented. “We found the smallest women who worked on the campaign we could find, and had them wheel these HUGE hand trucks over,” he laughed. Things, he says, haven’t improved much. Political theater aside, the Obama administration will be facing similar impediments in many ways — from information processing to vendor selection — everything an administration would need to maintain its start-up speed. Death by a thousand red tape paper cuts.
All this is going to make Obama’s own site – MyBarackObama.com – even more important. The community that elected Obama raised more money, held more events, made more phone calls, shared more videos, and offered more policy suggestions than any in history. They also delivered more votes. Hughes’ last great act for the campaign (he’s not joining the administration) has been to help them decide what to do with their own network. In mid-December, house parties were held in 2,000 cities to discuss how the many would carry on — some 86 percent of Obama supporters surveyed said they want to continue to help Obama by championing his legislation — through grassroots support. Then just two days before his inaugural, Obama sent this video, announcing Organizing for America, a community organizing infrastructure on steroids. If the only way to change the government is from the outside, then this is the way he’s going to do it.
A terrific guide to other ways to connect with the Obama Administration can be found here.
Later that day, I stood shivering outside The Warner Theater, and listened to the rehearsals for the BET Honors scheduled for the next day. The music was wonderful. People stopped to share the moment with each other. There we were, a hopeful gathering of strangers, taking in the joyful noise of our own excitement. (And, we thought, Mary J. Blige.) Will we be able to keep up the good feeling, and the hard work, when the music stops? As long as we don’t expect Congress to lead the way, I expect we’ve got a shot.