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Obama volunteers aim to stay involved
President Obama’s grass-roots supporters remain energized and ready for him to call them to action and service, pledging they will mobilize around the new administration’s policies.
Obama loyalists who knocked on doors, gave money and made phone calls for more than a year are still glowing from his ascension to the presidency, but say they recognize it’s time to roll up their sleeves again.
“That whole strategy and network is going to keep building,” said Carol Myers, a former high school principal from Indianapolis.
“I see people getting mobilized. … He’s going to push that, and it’s not just him, it’s this whole network of people who are now saying, ‘What can we do?’” she said. “If there’s a flood in Cincinnati, it’s not just going to be Cincinnati that’s going to be dealing with it. It’s just the beginning of that kind of compassion and commitment and action and that feeling that we’re all part of this.”
“You’re right,” responded Marie Engles, of Springboro, Ohio. “We’re all in it together.”
The Washington Times captured that conversation between the two voters, who had nothing in common except Mr. Obama.
The newspaper recently hosted a luncheon for 10 people living in areas ranging from San Francisco to rural South Carolina who came to Washington for the Obama inauguration, helping to bring together the coalition that contributed to his win.
Each supporter — ranging from a teen just leaving high school to members of a generation that witnessed bitter racial inequality — expressed a determination to continue a movement they think Mr. Obama built by using technology and a personal story to which they could relate.
Jennifer Benz, a small-business owner in San Francisco, already has taken up the Obama push to mobilize around policy. She attended one of the Obama-organized postelection house parties and was impressed by the turnout and how willing voters were to continue their involvement.
Mr. Obama will need his people to rally behind his agenda as he faces some Republican opposition to his spending plans, and he is asking for a sense of urgency.
“The movement you built is too important to stop growing now,” Mr. Obama told supporters in a recent Web video announcing that his campaign had morphed into a new outlet called Organizing for America. It will be treated as a special project housed at the Democratic National Committee.
“We cannot do this without you,” he said. “The change we’ve worked so hard for will not happen unless ordinary Americans get involved, and supporters like you must lead the way.”
A Democratic source familiar with the changes said officials are still brainstorming about how to create the next generation of organizing, since there is no candidate, nor campaign end date.
The source said it’s a challenge to keep voters continually engaged around issues, but noted that Obama supporters overwhelmingly said in a recent survey they want to remain active.
“The real commitment to the grass roots isn’t ending; it continues,” the source said.
Geneva Clark, of Cincinnati, said Mr. Obama encouraged her to get more involved at every level even though she was fed up with city leaders who “could care less” about the people they serve.
“Barack Obama was right, that it’s about us. He didn’t say ‘I can.’ He said, ‘We can,’ ” she said. “His campaign for the grass-roots movement is still going on.”
Even though she balances several jobs and is feeling the economic pinch, Miss Clark took his call to action to heart during the campaign, participating in the election with phone banking and door knocking in a way she never had before.
“I was giving money every time they asked,” she said, as the other lunch guests laughed and nodded. “I knew that if he made it, or didn’t make it, I did not want to have to sit and say all I did was run my mouth.”
Since then, she has participated in his national day of service and plans to stay engaged.
Each person in the room at the Oceanaire restaurant in downtown Washington was on the Obama e-mail list, and they said they regularly watched his YouTube videos.
As a testament to how technology has reshaped the political landscape, each person had been invited to the lunch via e-mail or Facebook.
Rabiyyah Malik-Jones, of North Augusta, S.C., told the group that technology helped her convince her Republican boss to support Mr. Obama.
He told her he had some concerns about the Democrat’s plans and was waiting to hear the news address his issue of interest.
“I told him, ‘No, You can go right online and read about it.’ And he told me he realized ‘I like this guy,’ ” she said as the group nodded. “That changed his mind to actually be able to see his platform right there on the Internet.”
Ms. Myers was first influenced to pay attention to Mr. Obama’s candidacy by her daughter Kristin, who volunteered for him at school.
“It’s hard for me to understand how someone cannot be touched when he speaks,” she said.
Ms. Myers said that because of technology, “I felt like I knew Barack Obama.”
“If you turn on the news, you would just get the bite of the speech, but to go on the Internet and hear whole speeches. That’s what sold me,” she said. “To see his passion and to feel a person versus that 30-second thing on the news, it was just transforming for showing the difference between the candidates, diving in to really learn what their voting records were.”
Patricia Moseley, an administrator at Strom Thurmond High School in Johnston, S.C., said Kytall Malik, a University of South Carolina student who also volunteered for Mr. Obama, introduced her to YouTube.
She said it was awkward at first, “but now at work my solution to everything is: Let’s make a video of it and put it on YouTube.”
Carlota Salazar, of Taylor, Texas, used the Internet to sign up to be a Spanish-speaking translator involved in registering people to vote.
“I just wanted this so badly because I wanted Obama to win. I was trying to get everybody,” she said. “And when he did, I cried and hollered and screamed.”
Why did people flock to the Obama movement in such big numbers?
For Miss Moseley, it’s because she found him to be a real person. In January 2008, the former Republican participated in a round-table conversation with the then-candidate about health care and education during the South Carolina primary season. He even mentioned her in his victory speech a few days later.
“It was as if I was talking to you, to someone that I knew,” she said. “I felt as if I had known Barack Obama for 10 years. I felt like this is just a friend.”
She even noticed he was checking his BlackBerry, and told the others at the lunch that the rumors he’s “addicted” to the device are completely true.
Everyone laughed, and attendees started talking about all of the “normal” things they’d witnessed Mr. Obama and his family doing. From the way Mr. Obama listened to music at the Lincoln Memorial concert, to his daughters, Malia and Sasha, being “real” because they weren’t so “prim and proper” like many politicians’ children, they agreed they found the family to be genuine.
“They actually represent America the way I see the U.S.,” Miss Benz said. “Our last few leaders and their families, they don’t represent me, they don’t represent my ideals, and they don’t represent what I think our country is.”
Ann Landers, of New Martinsville, W.Va., said even her difficult task of working to convince voters in that red state was made easier by Mr. Obama’s attitude.
People who didn’t support him at first are starting to come around, saying they are impressed with Mr. Obama, she said.
Miss Benz chimed in. “He has a vision for the country that actually is a place you want to be and a place that we can all be really proud of. It’s not that everything is going to work out perfectly, but to have everyone believe in that vision of what the United States can be again, just that is so powerful,” she said.
Mitch Stewart, the new executive director of Organizing for America, said the goal is to keep supporters involved for the long term.
“You wanted this movement to continue, and you wanted to actively support President Obama’s agenda,” he said, adding he hopes the tactics used during the campaign continue. “Friends talk to friends, and neighbors talk to neighbors about the issues they care about,” he said.
One way to do that is to make sure voters feel “connected to what President Obama is doing in Washington” through regular communication, said David Plouffe, Mr. Obama’s campaign manager.
“We’ll soon be asking you to give whatever time or talent you can to support the president,” Mr. Plouffe said in a video Friday. “We’re going to be talking to you a lot more about issues. Together, hopefully we can build a movement … [with a] much different purpose - not to win an election, but to change this country.”
The diverse group in the room wasn’t shy talking about the delicate issue of race.
Ms. Engles said the Obama presidency is “so much deeper” than just marking the election of the first black president.
“I don’t have the words to tell you what that meant,” she said. “I just remember not that long ago I would try to find [my now-25-year-old daughter] a black doll baby because there were no positive black images. This is so powerful.”
Miss Clark said she’s had some fights with people who can’t get past the race issue.
“I have a hard time saying he’s a black man. When you say he’s a black man, you dismiss the woman that spoke truth into his life every day,” she said. “She had to be diverse, she was strong, she loved different people. She was the bomb, his mother, and she was white.”
Mr. Malik said his friends abroad who follow the U.S. election tell him via Internet phone calls they have “a sense of hope” about the world now that Mr. Obama is president.
Ms. Myers nodded as the teenager spoke. “It’s true. He’s the first president who has been elected by the world.”
As the 10 Washington Times guests got up to leave, no longer strangers, they promised to stay in touch as they keep working for the Obama agenda.
Posing for a photo, some offered the campaign line, “Yes we can.”
Miss Clark had a better suggestion the group accepted with cheers: “How about: Yes we did?”
About the Author
Christina Bellantoni is a White House correspondent for The Washington Times in Washington, D.C., a post she took after covering the 2008 Democratic presidential campaigns. She has been with The Times since 2003, covering state and Congressional politics before moving to national political beat for the 2008 campaign. Bellantoni, a San Jose native, graduated from UC Berkeley with ...
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