What Should Obama Ask of Us, the American People?

Barack Obama’s campaign wasn’t a campaign to get elected.  Yes, that was front and center in most of our minds and, I’m sure, his for the last year plus.  But he said from the beginning that the end goal of this campaign was to create a movement for change.  That means the campaign isn’t over. 

More interesting, it isn’t over in the minds of millions of people across America who helped in one way or another to put Obama in office.  People are waiting for the next big ask.  In a recent meeting with Senator Patty Murray, in a gathering of progressive donors, even in my dentist’s office, I’ve heard people saying:  What’s next?  They are saying it with their sleeves rolled up.  What do you want me personally to do about the economy?  What do you want me personally to do about the future?

Obama gets one big ask.

Some have said that the ask is being made already.  Valuable data files are now accessible to progressive organizations across the country.  Campaign workers recently were urged to get together and decide what they want to do on a more local level.  Star volunteers and staff have been recruited into state level efforts.  And we all got email about house parties to support the stimulus package.

But none of these match the depth of the question itself.  People are wanting to be a part of something bigger than policy change and harder than a house party.  This is about Change with a capital C in the middle of a capital C Crisis.  We want guidance—sharp, focused, smart leadership–for not only DC policy making but for the broader campaign that we signed on to:

  1. Phase Two of this campaign, just like the electoral phase, needs a tangible, specific set of objectives set by movement leadership. 
  2. These objectives need to come from Obama and his proxies.  Any movement has a shared vision at its center, and we are hard wired to want this vision embodied by a charismatic leader. Demagogue, demigod, or ordinary human, Obama is the guy who has our attention.
  3. As in the electoral phase, objectives must scale to the power of each person involved.
  4. The campaign leadership needs to provide a set of tools or processes that enable people to do their part

Dreaming Big

Our current crisis and the highly sophisticated Obama campaign structure together create a once-in-a- generation opportunity to build lasting community infrastructure for the common good – not government based, not faith-based, not politically based.  Community based.

What might this look like? Here’s mine:

The ask:  I’m asking you to take care of each other through this financial crisis in some very specific ways.”

Active ingredients: elevates communal barn raising archetype over cowboy archetype (see The True Patriot); commitment is time limited; leverages crisis urgency; has middle class relevance

The structure: Each precinct gets a community organizer (possibly the Democratic pco) who is responsible for managing a set of online assets, events, and community activities.

Active ingredients:  taps Obama organizing model, is place based, scale fits size of traditional social networks, if Dem branded then Dems get credit as in DemocratsWork.

The content:

          Skill bank (relevant models: timebucks.org; http://www.brightneighbor.com)  The skill bank uses new web tools to create a non-monetized informal economic exchange like that internal to tribes, churches, pioneer communities. Within each precinct people make their skills available to each other on a trading rather than donating basis. People also can donate skills, which get banked and allocated on a needs basis by organizer or committee or simply via request to donor. 

Active ingredients:  people asked to do what they do best vs stuffing envelopes, builds relationships and thus other kinds of social support, mildly offsets decline in monetized exchanges, increases personal relevance for unemployed or underemployed, turns idle time productive, decreases isolation (all of which decrease mental health costs). Skill banking is reciprocity-based vs the one way flow down advocated by D’s or one way flow up advocated by R’s.

          Real Time Rides. Planned and spontaneous ride sharing via interactive web w/ precinct community filter. Cellphone based.

Active Ingredients:  builds relationships, decreases CO2, decreases need for transport infrastructure. 

          Events and Activities, misc.: (relevant models: www.brightneighbor.com; Lake Hills Liberals)  Annual social.  Welcome committee.  Soup brigade.  Community garage sale day. Idea templates for Friday Night at the Meaningful Movies or book club or exercise group as volunteer hosts emerge based on their interests.

Active Ingredients:  broadens & deepens social bonds; taps the Applebee’s America phenomenon, taps instinctive recession-related desire to retreat into a better past, decreases “ stuff”, increases community safety, increases Gross National Happiness. 

          Tools.  Campaign central provides web based tools for managing contacts, skill bank, real-time rides, and events as well as technology for tabulating/showcasing community outcomes (relevant model: Zazengo.com) both locally and nationally.

Active Ingredients:  Taps new technologies, creates community role for tech savvy young people. 

Additional Rationale:

Right wing ideologues have been successful in moving our political dialogue in part because they tapped existing affinity groups such as evangelical churches, business organizations, and gun clubs.  Members don’t join these groups for political purposes, and most of the benefit they receive has little to do with party politics.  Rather, these groups are woven into the fabric of a member’s individual identity and sense of community.  These groups have electoral and policy influence in part because they create sustained, multifaceted relationship among people. 

Those of us who value the common good often have been frighteningly narrow in our attempts to engage people.  Not only are we bound to the election cycle, but we reach out specifically in a political role for a political conversation—often in the absence of any deeper relationship.

Trends among young people suggest increasingly that they solicit information through trusted social networks.  If we really care about the common good, our best hope – perhaps our only hope—is to nurture social networks that embody these values and for whom political priorities and civic engagement are simply one manifestation of these broader values.

What do you think the ask should be?

About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt; Deas and Other Imaginings.
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