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Advising Obama from Your Living Room

Ann Heppermann

Kara Oehler

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President elect Barack Obama
(Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
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It's less than three weeks until Barack Obama takes the oath of office and becomes president. A big reason why is that during the campaign, his team was astoundingly effective at mobilizing volunteers, getting citizens to be stake-holders in the campaign. Supporters became phone bank workers from home, they were given specific routes of houses to go ring doorbells, and they held meetings in their own homes. Obama won, but that apparatus is still in place and house meetings are still going on. Last month, there were 2,000 house meetings across all 50 states, including one in Brooklyn, N.Y. Our tape recorders were rolling as Obama supporters talked about the coming presidency and their roles in it.

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Rev. Hurmon Hamilton: You have to do a mic test or something?

Hamilton: My name is Rev. Hurmon Hamilton.

Hamilton: Testing 1,2,3, Hurmon Hamilton.

Hamilton: I'm the president of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization.

Barak Obama: I will listen to you. Especially when we disagree. And above all, I will ask you to join in the work of remaking of this nation.

Hamilton When we look at President-elect Obama's campaign, I think those of us who were involved in community organizing, we immediately saw several things going on that were clear community organizing principals.

David Plouffe: Hi everybody, it's David Plouffe. We'd like you to go to MyBarackObama.com. Change is coming and register to host a house party to attend.

Hamilton: A community-organizing presidency is a presidency that assumes there is going to be an organized participation of citizens.

[Doorbell]

Kay Marshall: Hi, my name is Kay and this is my house.

Kay Marshall: I organized this house meeting for the Obama transition team to talk about issues that are important to us here in Brooklyn.

Lewis Marshall: I saw the thing. I just signed up about 20 minutes ago. Oh good, ring!

Lewis Marshall: I'm Kay's brother Lewis Marshall.

Kay Marshall: Come on in out of the cold!

Lewis Marshall: Kay and I organized, this is our 5th house meetings and first one after the campaign.

Wendy: I'm Wendy, hi. Lewis. Adam, nice to meet you.

Hamilton: At the heart of the community organizing is learning to build relationships, new relationships built on shared self interests. He said, "OK, let me take the principles that I have learned in Chicago where we bring people together in apartments and begin to process and talk about what those shared self interests is and let's that with Facebook, let's do that with Myspace, which just blew up, right?

Kay Marshall: I had signed up for my BarackObama.com. So you just go on and say, this is the date, this is the time. I'm having a house party, do you want to come? And total strangers sign up and come to your house to talk about issues.

Kay Marshall: Um, and then the campaign, or I don't know what we call them now, the movement, has a video.

Nikki Sutton (on video): Hi, I'm Nikki Sutton, an online organizer for Obama for America. And I want to thank you so much for participating in a Change is Coming House Meeting.

Hamilton: Now I don't think - this is not mind control. This is not President-elect Obama trying to figure out how to seduce the nation. And get them to drink the Kool-Aid here. I think this is President Obama trying to take advantage of the inspiration that has been released by his campaign and go out there and help people get organized so their voices can be heard.

Kay Marshall: Well, once you sign up to do a meeting, they send you an email thanking you for doing it, what to do during the meeting, a sample schedule. They ask you to talk about what issues are important, brain storm ways to build relationships with local politicians.

Hamilton: Now, these people who are meeting in these house meetings who are going to meeting with their city councilors and their educators from their educational board.

Voice: Is David Yassky your councilman?

Hamilton: They're developing an appetite for political policy and they're getting the sense that my involvement can actually make a difference.

Kay Marshall: To actually want to spend my Saturday afternoon talking about health care and the war in Afghanistan and how the president should be making his decisions and then going to the Internet and typing it up and sending it in to him is really kind of an amazing thing.

Voice: Right now I'm most upset about the plan to escalate the war in Afghanistan.

Hamilton: One of the major problems of the presidency is that you get trapped in the bubble and that you get disconnected from what everyday people are feeling and thinking and experiencing.

Voice: The issue that is most central to me is wealth disparity.

Hamilton: And you see how they're organizing the house meetings now. I suspect he is doing that on a regular basis at the minimum keeps him in touch with where people are and what they're thinking.

Kay Marshall: I know that they're not, you know, every email that I send to them, I don't expect that anyone near to President Obama is reading them, but the hope is that they'll continue to have them to give people the opportunity to give feedback on where we think the government should be going.

Voice: What about a rethinking of the tax code?

Lewis Marshall: I really, it's been for me, personally, a rebirth of a kind of idealism and a sense of hope. And if that sounds corny, that's too bad. Just the fact that strangers would come together in somebody else's kind of seedy parlor to have those conversations, that's just to me, that's just remarkable.

Hamilton: I think most people in America recognize the problems that we face are extraordinarily complex know that this is not going to be an overnight solution. He does have to be cautious not to raise expectations too high, but at the end of the day, he is certainly in no worse place by doing this.

Voice: I mean he wants us to be there as the sort of foot soldiers to support when the stuff comes through, but we have a role to push him further which is not to say attack him, no no no.

Hamilton: I think, I think President-elect Obama has the same vantage point as President Roosevelt and President Johnson both in separate occasions are on the record saying to people who came in to see them with very good ideals, "That's a very good ideal, now go out there and make me do it." The suggestion is presidents have to respond to many instances where the political pressure is coming from. That's just the reality of politics.

Lewis Marshall: I have to admit there was a part of me that was sitting here the other night and we kept having that problem deciding well it's not the campaign anymore, it's the administration and I kept hearing this funny voice in my head from my old Commie cousins saying "It's the Revolution!" Well we obviously don't want to build something like that.

Voice: No, I was just going to say, we have to know what we want him to do and just keep after him, like everyone else is going to.

Lewis Marshall: So I hope he builds a, builds a, I hate to hesitate to say a machine, but I hope he builds and organization that has a real sense of organic interconnectedness all the way up and all the way down.

Hamilton: So I think what has happened is that he will have a series of house meetings. Out of those house meetings will come a distilled list of priorities and he'll see how that jives with what he's thinking, make the adjustments. He will act. He will begin to implement and he will come back to house meetings again across the country and get a sense of how those policies are now being implemented. How they're playing out in the lives of real people and then they'll make adjustments. I think that's what he's trying to get to.

Voice: I think we spanned the universe of issues here, I think in terms of issues. Is this what we were supposed to do? Yeah! I mean, more or less.

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