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Obama mobilizes the troops

September 3, 2009

I’m sure some of you received the same email I just did, the one with the From: field occupied by “President Barack Obama.” It’s a DNC email, of course, asking for monetary support to help pass health care reform. It includes these two sentences:

The pundits told us it was impossible — that the donations working people could afford and the hours volunteers could give would never loosen the vise grip of big money and powerful special interests. We proved them wrong.

Did we really? I’m not seeing it.

But that’s not why I’m moved to write about this. I’m moved to write about this because it is fairly unprecedented – a president using the massive email list that he built during his campaign and attempting to mobilize them to help him pass a key policy initiative. This has never happened before, and my concerns come in two closely related flavors.

First, Obama’s list is very likely an enormous list of people who are not activists. Moreover, it’s an enormous list of people without a defined politics. It’s people who were fed up with George W. Bush, people who were taken in by Obama’s personality, or his (deserved) unique appeal as the first African-American president, or his elegant rhetoric. It’s not a homogeneous group of people dedicated to any particular policy agenda or ideology. This is not necessarily a huge concern, but it does create an interesting dynamic – how will these people respond to a specific policy request? Will they tune out, will they do whatever Obama asks them to do, or will it be something in between?

Secondly, and more significantly, if the result of this is closer to “they’ll do whatever Obama asks them to do,” does this represent a significant expansion of executive power? No president has ever before had a direct line to his supporters like this. If Obama can use his supporters to change the course of legislation in Congress, what does that do to checks and balances?

I’m not sure what the answers are, or if this is actually anything to be worried about. But it’s certainly worth thinking about.

Flying Whale

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