Barack Obama Domestic issues Health care Politics

Organizing a Grass Roots Movement for Health Care Reform

[digg-reddit-me]About a week ago, I got an email from Mitch Stewart, the Director of Organizing for America, the organization that is tasked with marshalling the remnants of Obama’s campaign organization to create grass roots pressure for change. It read almost as if it were a campaign email:

Joseph –

The fight to pass real health care reform will come down to one thing: you.

That’s because the efforts in Washington, D.C., to fix our broken health care system and provide affordable coverage for all Americans are only part of the battle.

By teaming up with your friends and family and organizing for real reform in your community, you can make the difference in this debate. Together, we’ll make sure the President’s plan succeeds across the country…
In communities around the country, folks will be knocking on doors, making phone calls, and doing all they can to seize what may be our last opportunity to change health care in America forever – as the President has said, reform needs to “happen this year, or not at all.”

The goal of the email was to get people to buy “Health Care 09” t-shirts. But unlike the campaign emails – which often led to me buying whatever they were hawking to demonstrate my support, reading up on the issue (if I had not already) and blogging about it, this email prompted me to no action. A few months ago, I wrote about this issue in a post about the “Paradox of Organizing for America.” The problem I saw then was that while “Obama for America” had a clear, singular goal – electing Barack Obama president – and citizens were faced with the motivating factor of being directly involved in achieving this goal – voting, and convincing others to vote as they were – neither of these factors which were essential to the success of Obama for America are present for Organizing for America.

But this email demonstrates another problem, a problem inherent in the legislative-centered approach to policy that Obama has taken in general – and his rugby-scrum strategy for achieving health care reform in particular. How can he motivate the grass roots to back him if there is no clear bill or idea to rally behind?

Clearly, their strategy is to make this a binary question: Are you for or against health care reform? Everyone is for health care reform – as our system is quite obviously unsustainable. But there are many, many valid questions critics and supporters of the various progressive-type health care reform plans have:

  • Will this reform be sufficient to “bend the curve”?
  • Should medical malpractice awards be capped?
  • Should we be moving towards a single-payer system?
  • Would non-profit insurance organizations be a better approach?

On policy grounds, many of those who support health care reform disagree about how it should be done. Now, Organizing for America is asking them to push for reform, with details unrevealed and undecided. What they are asking for is, simply, a leap of faith – to trust that the Obama administration knows what they are doing, and that they will do the best they can.

They key fact that the Obama administration and Organizing for America are pushing is that this is the time. As the email quotes Obama: “[R]eform needs to ‘happen this year, or not at all.'”

The grounds for this claim are political rather than policy-oriented. As a matter of reflective policy-making, it would undoubtedly be better to gradually experiment with different approaches, testing them to see which are successful and gradually building support for a wholesale reorganization of health care. But politically, this is untenable. First – with the retirement of the worst generation of Americans and the exponential rise in health care costs, our federal deficit is set to explode in the next thirty years. The longer we wait, the harder it will be to reign in costs and “bend the curve.” This is a problem that should have been dealt with while the Baby Boomers were in power, when the problem first became evident – but, as usual, they abdicated their responsibilities. Second, Obama now has more going for him domestically than he likely will at any other point, including if he were to win a second term. Obama’s popularity is high; he has 60 Democrats in the Senate and a sizeable majority in the House (and the president’s party has traditionally lost seats in the first midterms after the presidential election); he has several key Republicans willing to compromise – and various business and other interests willing to support some legislation.

The difficulty Organizing for America faces is motivating the many policy-oriented and otherwise savvy Obama-supporters to support the administration on this issue without having set its position in advance. Organizing for America seems to have a clear idea of what it wants from the grass roots: pressure for the idea that we need reform now. What’s less clear is how to get the grass roots to buy into their part of the strategy. Buying t-shirts is what you do after you buy into the strategy – not before.

It’s not clear to me that Organizing for America has realized its job is no longer to preach to the converted – but to convert bystanders into activists.

[Image by tandemracer of her baby’s six-month doctor visit licensed under Creative Commons 2.0]

Barack Obama Politics

The Paradox In Organzing For America

[digg-reddit-me]Last week, I received a phone call from an Obama-affiliated group asking me to “Call my congressman and tell them to support Obama’s budget,” or something along those lines. I didn’t. Apparently, many others didn’t as well.

At the same time, Organizing for America, the follow-up to the Obama campaign organization run by David Plouffe, sent out emails and organized people to knock on doors to encourage support for Obama’s budget. From what I’ve heard and read, all this push is having an effect, but it’s been underwhelming.

Here’s my thought:

The Obama campaign was extremely effective about this because it people knew they had to make a choice and vote. Knowing that this was coming up, they evaluated all the information they came across with this in mind. Those who settled on Barack Obama then had to defend their choice – and if they were of a particular type of person – they could promote his candidacy. And so it was that hundreds of thousands of people became convinced to try to achieve a single shared goal. This group proved extremely effective – at fundraising, knocking on doors, defending Obama against attacks, mounting attacks against his opponents, and eventually, getting people out to vote.

The process was something like this:

  1. Citizens realize they must make a choice.
  2. They evaluate the choices.
  3. They make a choice.
  4. Their goal becomes to convince others to make the same choice.
  5. As more citizens become convinced to take on this shared goal, the process accelerates.

Organizing for America faces a different challenge on several levels – the first of which is the difference between choosing a candidate and supporting a policy that you will not be required to vote on. In the first case, there is a level of personal responsibility inherent in choosing and voting for a candidate. Regarding legislation though, the people have no direct voice. Their only direct responsibility is to vote in the right people to make these decisions. The influence they might or might not have is indirect. That’s why organizing people for this purpose is more complicated. The tendency is for people to take a more passive approach to legislation – “Let’s give them a chance” rather than “This is the best policy.” Citizens evaluate information differently if they know they will be forced to make a choice based on their evaluation of the information.

It seems the Obama administration and Organizing for America are aware of this – and are trying to figure out how to keep people involved, to change the expectations and force people to take a position, to make a choice. Thus they are encouraging people to pressure those representing them and to try to convince other citizens of the worth of Obama’s budget. But the problem is this type of movement will never gain momentum unless people first have a shared goal. 

So, the Catch-22 is that without a shared goal, citizens are less likely to organize; citizens are less likely to have a shared goal unless they are forced to make a simple choice; the main means Organizing for America is using to force people to make a choice implicitly assume a shared goal.

There is some reason to have faith that Obama can overcome this seemingly impossible loop. Because he already did so with a similar loop – which I described in The Paradox of Obama. Or even better, and more appropriately, the answer might come from citizens discussing these ideas within the tubes of the internets.