Monday, August 17, 2009


Yes, we’ve been had

by Larry Geller

I pre-ordered my copy of Yes We Did! An inside look at how social media built the Obama brand (Voices That Matter) and eagerly ripped the box open when it arrived.

Yes we Did! purports to explain how Obama got where he is. Obama was still hot then. Now his ratings are plummeting. You probably know that the public option is possibly dead in healthcare reform, and that the rest of it has been repurposed to boost health insurance industry profits. We’ve been had. Again. Worse, Obama is emulating Bush, for example in his use of signing statements, support for preventive detention, rendition, and wiretaps (and more). He wasn’t supposed to do that. Emulating Bush is the exact opposite of Change.

I cracked open the book, put on my strong reading glasses (for some reason the author and publisher favor big, empty margins and small type). But I’m looking at the book differently now anyway. It’s become a guidebook at how to bamboozle the public. How to use the Internet to carry out a bait-and-switch campaign.

I’ve admitted that I was taken in. I did have Hope, I did expect Change. Obama’s marketing effort was strong enough to overcome my usual skepticism of politicians’ campaign promises. Of course, I am not alone.

So I looked into this book again to find what it is that worked on me. Not, mind you, so that I might one day replicate whatever techniques were used. That would be unethical. Obama used those techniques, along with his ability to cast rhetorical spells (his skills as a community organizer, perhaps), to gain office so he could then do exactly the opposite of what we were lead to expect. Those of us who were taken in, I mean. Many were not, for example journalist Sam the Progressive Review.

Sheesh, Obama’s campaign even won a marketing award! Ad Age’s Marketer of the Year award.

I don’t buy a cereal box’s claim to lower cholesterol, why did I buy Obama? (Of course, it’s far better than the competing brand, no argument from me on that.)

Back to the book. Most of the techniques are not new, they are basic. Marketing 101, just applied using the super-sharp tools of social media. Bottom line, the book has few insights. It is a description of craftsmanship, not unlike other how-to books on home repairs, for example. Sure, it has the new buzzwords.

Also, the techniques have served one purpose well and one purpose only: to get Obama elected. They have proven useless in influencing Congress or the president in carrying out his promises. In other words, they are his tools, not ours. If we continue to be taken in, we are twice fools, that’s all. When you get that email asking you to donate each month to Obama, ask yourself how or if that money will be working for you.

Having used us, Obama systematically has abandoned us. The latest news is that he is abandoning the LGBT segment of his supporters.

Obama’s success will set a trend, of course. The next election will predictably be a combination of new and old marketing strategies—TV ads and telemarketing for the relatively uneducated, print and Internet for the more literate, and tweets for the addicted. No target audience will be spared. The Internet offers marvelous efficiencies. These are used two ways: (1) No need to spend big for advertising to reach Internet users, and (2) their donations pay for the ads to reach all the others.

No doubt both political parties will be emulating Obama in 2010.

Our job as citizens is to avoid being taken in again. And maybe to pay particular attention to those Democrats who collaborated with the president in robbing us of our Hope and who have denied us our Change. A few good primary fights would do our democracy some good.


Sad but all seemingly true. And Obama has all of those huge em databases in every state that he could have used to activate his base to action. His failure to use that powerful tool to support healthcare reform is another of those unexplained mysteries of our age. "Been had" indeed resonates.

"Been had" is hopefully not a final verdict. The Obama administration is still young and stumbling around, trying to find its way. It has to be obvious even to his inner group that his "Bi-Partisan" approach has been a disastrous failure. He has been courting a mythical "moderate" center which does not exist.

As that illusion fades, perhaps he will reconsider the progressive wing of the Party. Not only is there a pool of congressional votes he has ignored, he may discover the general public is more responsive to a bold, progressive vision, for healthcare, for foreign policy, for re-building the economy. The American people are starving for optimism. But are not willing to be conned. They set aside their cynicism and apathy to help elect Obama in the HOPE of CHANGE WE CAN BELIEVE IN. He still has an opportunity to demonstrate he is more than an empty suit full of charm.

FDR did not come in as a progressive. Circumstances and the demands of the population gave him an opportunity to rise above his past. Obama still has that potential, but life is FULL of people who fail to rise to their potential.

In light of recent depressing news on the health-care reform debate, a friend asked me "NOW will you stop defending Obama?"

Sigh. I guess I haven't made myself particularly clear, though god knows I try. I don't support -or oppose - Obama. I support the mass of people who saw in his election hope that their legitimate aspirations for a more economically, racially, and socially just world would be advanced. Most people fundamentally believe that the way to create social change is through elections, since we don't exactly reward tireless grassroots organizing in our profit-driven society. Our job as grassroots organizers is help people move beyond that framework and into meaningful, effective collective action.

I've never been under the illusion that Obama was running for anything except the office of the President of the United States, a position for which two qualifications are implicitly necessary: an adherence to capitalism, and a commitment to defend US interests above all. I am always troubled by both capitalism, and "US interests," which are fundamentally understood as the same thing.

What happened to the idea that seemed so evident to progressives and radicals before the election - that no matter who was elected, only a powerful social movement would be able to create the pressure necessary for systemic change? Doesn't an understanding of that idea presuppose that whoever is elected will respond to the most powerful pressures that exist? If we understand that, how can we say we've "been had"? Didn't we understand the deal, or were we only "had" by our own laziness as organizers in thinking our work was done when we elected a Democrat? I don't understand how any of us labored under that illusion, since social movement activists talk about this constantly.

But for some reason, the dominant discussion lately on the progressive Left is this ahistorical brooding over lost illusions. Is there a purpose to this? If there is, I don't get it. For many of us, the extent of our so-called "support" of Obama manifested itself in the 10 seconds it took to fill in the bubble next his name on Nov. 4. Are we to circle the drain atoning for the loss of that sliver of our lives?

I worry that if we focus our emotional energy on whether we "support" or "oppose" Obama, we miss our opportunities to unite with everyday people to build powerful social movements to address our everyday concerns about housing, health care, living wages, education, etc.

Thanks, Katy. I find myself not disagreeing with you at all, and yet I know that I did place a lot of hope in the election of Obama himself. I just did. (I won't be trapped again, I hope.).

So much of the Fox-driven media attention also centers around the individual, Obama, and attacking him. He does remain the symbol, the personification, of the ideals of the Left and those who put him there to bring about the promised change.

I think it is true that we invested in Obama, and that we've been sold out. Of course, it is up to those who would like to have change to continue to work to bring it about, but some of the Left has also sold out, supporting Obama now as they did during his election campaign. Yes, we need to keep working. Yes, democracy is not just campaigning for a candidate or filling out that little oval bubble, as you correctly point out.

Unlike Fox loudmouths, though, the Left tends to spend time debating itself and working out what to do. That's probably the better way. I hope that's what is going on now. I hope, though, that the debate and argument result in some timely action, because Fox is onto something--Left or Right, we seem to want quick, easy fixes these days, despite a track record that shows those fixes leave us the losers.

Obama was 'put there' to quell the rising anger of the people who (some) are starting to see more dark realities of this former country, now US,Inc.

Unfortunately people don't 'peel the onion' completely, as my hero Howard Zinn explains in his very excellent book 'The Peoples History of the United States,' so we the people have minimal insight into what's going on in our world. One MUST seek out alternative media! One must read, research, question!

The U.S. was a dream. Obama was a dream.

'The Dream Is Over' . . . John Lennon

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