The Party Leader
Something strange is happening to Barack Obama.
The first-term Illinois senator — who built his presidential campaign around the promise of a new kind of politics and launched a movement that drew in young voters, independents and Republicans — is taking control of the Democratic Party.
The shift from insurgency to establishment is only natural, as Obama tightens his grip on the Democratic nomination. But, given his post-partisan pedigree, it poses many challenges.
Obama will be forced to reckon with the party’s old guard -– fund-raisers, elected officials and organizers, including many who rallied around Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and, before that, her husband. He must also adjust his 21st-century coalition to the notion that he has become the standard-bearer for an institution sometimes too wedded to tradition. At the same time, he will face an array of liberal bloggers and activists who have grown comfortable in their criticism of the existing Democratic leadership and are still unsure of Obama’s commitment to their progressive agenda. Oh, and then there are the Republicans.
Unless Clinton ekes out an upset win — an outcome that seems even less likely following John Edwards’ endorsement Wednesday of Obama and the string of other support that has followed – Obama’s crowning moment will come in late August at the party’s convention in Denver.
"Obama will be controlling the Democratic convention," said Simon Rosenberg, a veteran of Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign who is president of NDN, a progressive think tank, "and the entire convention will be about nominating him and his ascension to the top of the party.”
Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, will be there, too, with a prominent role. So will Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House, and Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader. But even now, while these officials hold important jobs within the party, Obama is already consolidating his power — and early strains are evident.
“We’re now going to see Sen. Obama’s insurgent campaign melding and becoming the party establishment,” Rosenberg said. “There is going to be a new Democratic Party. There is going to be an upheaval and a new order is going to emerge.”
Matt Stoller, a liberal blogger and activist, this month tallied the Obama campaign’s accomplishments in everything from voter registration and fund-raising to grass-roots organizing and use of the Internet to spread his message. Along the way, he said, “Obama has created a number of significant infrastructure pieces through his campaign, displacing traditional groups the way he promised he would by signaling the end of the old politics of division and partisanship.”
Obama’s campaign has also taken steps to discourage wealthy contributors from funding the independent groups that many expected to play a large role in the election. As The Politico’s Ben Smith reported Tuesday, Penny Pritzker, Obama’s national finance chair, told his supporters not to send checks to groups like Progressive Media USA, run by David Brock, the conservative-turned-liberal journalist, and Fund for America, led by John Podesta, Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff. (That may explain Brock’s apparent decision to fold the project.)
Donors and Democratic activists have been quietly debating Obama’s motives: Is he simply interested in keeping his Democratic efforts within his campaign, which is so well funded he doesn’t need outside help? Or is he, as some believe, cutting off funds to groups whose leaders — Brock and Podesta — some Obama aides view as too tightly linked to Clinton?
In either case, Pritzker’s words are the latest in Obama’s remarkably swift and complete consolidation of Democratic Party power. It’s an unprecedented seizure of control that has built him, over the course of a year, the most powerful field organization and the largest financial network in American politics, leaving many existing structures — traditional party organizations in many states, the Clintons’ long-nurtured national network — in the dust.
While Stoller sits far from that kind of traditional organization, his view is very much the same. “You know all that old-style Washington politics preventing real change? As hard as it might be to handle, in a lot of ways he means that those of us who believe in partisan hard edged combat are part of an outmoded system.”
The unsettling of those seasoned political hands may help Obama convince the many new and young voters who rallied to his cause that he is serious about change. But as they see him in new roles, negotiating with old critics and taking charge of old institutions, their support will also be tested.
Robert Eisinger, chairman of the political science department at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, said he has seen remarkable numbers of young people registering to vote for the first time as Oregon’s May 20 primary approaches. Obama drew them into the process, Eisinger said, and, “Now, he is their horse.”
As he settles in to his role as party leader, Eisinger expects Obama to reach out to groups he hasn’t dealt with before, including Democratic-leaning think tanks and interest groups. “A President Obama – and even a President McCain – knows that nothing is going to get done in the House and Senate without cultivating good ties with all wings of your own party and significant wings of the opposition party,” Eisinger said, adding that while President George W. Bush said as a candidate that he understood that principle, he hasn’t acted on it.
Eisinger said there is no guarantee the new voters that Obama has attracted will remain lifelong Democrats. “There was no shortage of Hubert Humphrey Democrats who voted for Ronald Reagan,” he said. “I don think that is something that Sen. Obama, or a future President Obama, has to worry about, if 25 years from now some of those citizens who were behind him become alienated.”
In the short-term, Eisinger doesn’t expect Obama’s supporters – both the newly engaged activists and the more passive voters – to be shaken as their candidate takes up his role as the top Democrat. “If you’re a party volunteer and you’re completely enthused about your ticket, you don’t care,” he said, while the less engaged aren’t likely to notice much of what goes on at the Democratic convention and other big party moments.
But others are less certain of the relationship that will develop between Obama and the diverse coalition that helped catapult him to this position.
Micah Sifry, a campaign finance reform activist and co-founder of Personal Democracy Forum, wrote last week, “Will the Obama movement be a real movement that pushes its leader to keep his promises? Or will it be more of a personalized movement of followers attracted to a charismatic star? Will the network talk laterally and organize pressure upward? We don’t know the full answer yet.”
Even as he cements his grip on the party apparatus and mines untapped — indeed, unimagined — sources of money, few expect Obama to become the kind of old-time party boss with the power to, say, make a phone call and get a determined, but doomed, candidate to withdraw from a hotly contested party primary. It’s the result of the changing nature of politics, the power of the Internet and the push for transparency.
“The party bosses are gone,” said Eisinger. “It’s not that the leaders don’t exist. But rather, the political culture that allows a party elder to tap a senior senator on the shoulder and say, ‘It’s time to bow out,’ is gone.”
But Obama will still be plenty powerful. As Stoller cautioned, “it’s time to think through the consequences of a party where there is a new chief with massive amounts of power….He has control of the party apparatus, the grass-roots, the money and the messaging environment. He is also, and this is fundamental, someone that millions of people believe in as a moral force. When you disagree with Obama, you are saying to these people, ‘Your favorite band sucks.’”