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Obamarama retrospective

In Obama, Politikk on november 10, 2009 at 7:04 am

Yes We Can

On the streets canvassing for the man. (Photo: R. Eriksen)

Late this summer I was interviewed by the Norwegian student Cecilie Walther Fjeldvik about my experiences from the Obama campaign. She was writing a master’s degree thesis on the presidencies and campaigns of three different American presidents – Roosevelt, Reagan and Obama – and wanted to use my insider knowledge in the paper.

I was off course flattered to be included. Reading it now, I am glad I took the time, because it probes so much deeper than all the interviews I did with my colleagues earlier this year. And oh yes, it’s in English, so all of my fellow Obama volunteers finally can get a glimpse of what I was doing all the time, with my little note pad and all. Enjoy!

Erik Møller Solheim had originally planned to go to the United States to cover the 2008 presidential election as a journalist. But, when getting closer to the trip he felt it would be wrong to try to cover the election as a neutral journalist when he found himself truly cheering for Barack Obama. Instead he decided to volunteer in the Obama campaign and write a book about it. The book is called En Stemme for Obama – en nordmanns forsøk på å få 300 millioner amerikanere til å forstå sitt eget beste. Together with a photographer called Richard Eriksen, Solheim volunteered and went to the United States to work for Obama. The following is a summary of an interview with Mr. Solheim. The interview took place at Colletts Café in Oslo on September 23rd 2009 from 1.30pm to 3.00pm. The interview was recorded and Mr. Solheim agreed to have his name displayed in the thesis. This is Solheim’s story.


I'm putting my first Obama button on my sleeve and realize that there is no going back.

The Volunteer Experience. Although Barack Obama writes about collecting support, about going door-to-door in his book The Audacity of Hope, this was not a clear inspiration to Mr. Solheim. Solheim deliberately read Obama’s books later because he did not want to know too much in advance, but rather learn along the way and have his future readers to go through this process with him. When it comes to the communication method of going door-to-door, Solheim generally had good experiences. When he first entered the volunteer-office on 300 West Adams Street in Chicago, he had only imagined he would help out around the office with copying and similar back-office work. But he was put to do phone calls. Solheim explains that the Obama campaign was against using so-called “robo-calls”, which means that everything is done automatically and a recorded voice is what the receiver hears when picking up the phone. Only at the very end, the campaign made use of such “robo-calls”. Later an opportunity to go door-to-door came along.

Solheim experienced that the Americans generally seemed happy to be contacted this way. Talking to people helped make the volunteer-work meaningful. When asked if he got any training in this type of work, Solheim explained that the Obama campaign was built on telling your story. Some received training on successful story-telling, but with about 8 million volunteers, it was impossible to provide such training to everyone. Instead one was given a handbook on how to do campaigning. As mentioned, the core of the reaching out to people was telling your story. Obama has told his story and successfully made his own story an American story, connecting it to the common values shared by the American people.


My fellow volunteer Ed takes his chances. The audacity of hope! (Photo: Richard Eriksen)

When knocking on doors making a connection, finding a common ground became the ice-breaker. The recipe is simple, first ask a question then tell your story explaining why you work as a volunteer and why you support Obama. Solheim, despite being scared of the dogs he met in some of the neighborhoods, feels that the door-to-door method does work. Being a Norwegian did not create problems, but rather increased the ability to connect with certain groups of people. For instance, the fact that Solheim was volunteering without being able to vote made it easier to connect with people who still clearly remembers how it is not having the right to vote. Solheim got the impression that the campaign showed great communication from the top down to volunteers on the streets. The Obama campaign was one of the richest campaigns ever, but “on the ground” looked chaotic. Everything was provisional and temporary, and there were extreme limitations on unnecessary resources. Still, Solheim claims that there was a great cohesion between the top and the bottom. The fact that they had only what they needed created increased motivation. When entering a volunteer-office that looked awful, it made you want to get to work, it made you feel that you were needed. There was no ‘extras’. The limited resources made you feel like you were a part of something similar of a revolutionary movement. The grassroots organization coincides with Obama’s own story and helps build liability. Here is a quote from the Handbook for Volunteers on storytelling:

As a Field Organizer, you will be in direct contact with voters and volunteers who look to you for leadership. A critical part of taking leadership is being able to articulate for others who you are, where you come from and what challenges have shaped the life choices that led you to this campaign. If you are asking others to follow you they need to know why you’re worth following. Simply saying “follow me” is not enough. They’ll know if they want to follow you if they see in you someone who has faced challenges before, someone who can act in the face of uncertainty, and someone who will make choices based in principles and values. As a leader you must tell people who you are and why you’re there.

As an Organizer, you will tell your story on a daily basis: at volunteer trainings, at house meetings, at organizational meetings, in one-on-ones, at the doors, etc. Telling your story is a skill. It requires critical reflection on your life, your values, and how those values were shaped. It requires connecting that story to Barack Obama and moving people into action. Stories are not developed in a quiet corner. They’re developed in relationship with others—you tell your story, pay attention to the way others react, and continually make choices about which parts of your story help to motivate and encourage others to act. As Organizers in Ohio, we tell our story to motivate ourselves, our volunteers, and the public to experience the values that calact, the urgency of our cause and why we need to act now.


Volunteer office in Miami Gardens. One week before election day. (Photo: Richard Eriksen)

Reaching the Top. Being able to hear Obama speak live on three occasions, Mr. Solheim was asked about hisvimpressions of Obama’s communication skills and reference to being a “rock-star” politician. Solheim emphasize the difference between a speech that is thoroughly prepared and scripted, and a more unedited speech. The first time Solheim saw Obama speak was in Minneapolis. This was an unedited speech, compared to other big televised speeches. In some ways Obama seemed like a stand-up comedian, kept talking on this and that, some of it was interesting other things were not. But what was impressive was the narrative. How he built up the speech through several “tops”. Obama started building up to a point, and then slowly calmed it down again, then he built up to a slightly bigger top – calming it down again, until he reached the highest and final top, and by this time the whole crowd was standing. There was a certain musicality to it that kept escalating. This technique represents a great narrative understanding, Solheim says, and the type of escalation can be compared to the campaign as a whole itself. The campaign witnessed small victories all along, and then at the end the biggest victory of all. It is all about reaching the highest top at Election Day.


Yes We Did

The Time as a President – keeping his support. Although Obama has proved to be a great communicator, Solheim does not think that rhetoric is everything. Solheim believes that the successful rhetoric of Barack Obama will continue to be present during his presidency, but Solheim says that he feels irritated when people claim that it is only rhetoric that matters, or at least he feels it is an easy point to make. It is almost like saying that because a person is pretty, that person can not possibly be any smart. The rhetorical techniques are not at all unimportant, but when President Obama goes to Egypt and gets standing applause from Muslims, it is beyond that. On the other hand, the Open Door Policy that Obama stands for is of great importance. For instance when it comes to the measures being taken on the issue of climate, this is politics in complete contrast to Bush. At this point, when it comes to dialog and a more open government, a lot of the rhetoric gets a concrete value. Solheim wants to point out that coming from a campaign-setting and a victory represents a climax. One builds up extreme expectations to one candidate, and one is doomed to experience a downturn. Solheim admits he has felt disappointment over his candidate himself. Why did not Obama just enter the White House and do everything right away, why could he not be harder towards the Republicans. Why can he not just say that the ‘you lie’ comment during the joint session in Congress is related to racism. Obama could not do all this all at once, because he is an extreme clever pragmatic, and despite his victory as a president there is still 47 percent of the population who did not want him to become president. Obama needs to keep his support and hopefully also convince some of his opponents of his political agenda.

Obama can easily be accused for either too much talk and too little action, or visa-versa. The celebrity-status and his charisma can help his support. For instance, the recent speech to Congress about the Health Care Reform immediately had an effect on the popularity polls, Solheim thinks the popularity increased with about 10 per cent right after the speech.One problem for Obama now is that the Republicans are good at keeping Town Hall Meetings, where they create opposition to Obama’s policies. While Obama quietly delivered his suggestion of a Health Care Reform to the Congress only to wait for a reply. Obama’s tactic now seems to be not to get too much involved, while the Town Halls are increasing negative opinions towards Obama and the reform. For now, Solheim believes that the Health Care issue will result in a classical compromise in the middle. Solheim refers to David Gergen and his theory that if a president wants to get things done it is during the first two years of the presidency he has a chance, which is when he still has popular support. The following two years is the preparation for re-election. While if you do get re-elected, the next four years is really just a time when you are on your way out. This might be limited description of the presidential periods, but it does explain why Obama is trying to do so much at the moment. At home he is working on health care, abroad he brings up climate change, talks to China and stops the building of a rocket shield. [September 2009]

The office

The volunteer office in Miami Gardens was an old med. clinic. Here we are seen working from a gyneclogist's bench. (The foot holders worked excelent with coffee cups.) (Photo: Richard Eriksen)

The 2008 Campaign and Communication Resources. When it comes to the use of Internet during the Obama campaign, Solheim thinks that facebook is the most overrated website, while YouTube had the greatest impact, at least in the beginning. Because Barack Obama is good at giving speeches and in order to gain name-recognition, YouTube proved very useful. Despite websites, Solheim thinks that mail has been the most effective way of communication throughout the campaign. “Everyone” has an e-mail address, at least that was Solheim’s experience working as a volunteer when registering new supporters for the campaign. Both David Plouffe, the campaign manager, and Obama himself, were good on email. Plouffe did for instance send out video-clips of himself explaining how they would win the next state, making the volunteer feel they got some knowledge and inside information about the thoughts on the ongoing election process. It was inspiring, Solheim says. When it comes to text-messaging, Solheim only had an American phone number by the end of his period in the US, but noticed the use of sms mostly at the Election Day. Another important tool was the Obama website, because it also has local sites for states and cities. A lot of arrangements and happenings occurred locally. For instance, when Solheim found himself to be in Chicago, he clicked himself into these community websites and found out what he wanted to attend that was in the neighborhood. It could for instance be someone who arranged for fellow supporters to come to this person’s house to watch one of the TV-debates. Very much of the happenings were such individual initiatives, in addition to the official Obama happenings. E-mail was an important tool not only to get inspired, but also to be notified when things where happening.

Organizing for America. Yes, Solheim is still a member of Organizing for America and does receive an email from time to time. Through OFA the local engagement keeps working even after the election. For instance so-called House Parties where volunteers invite people into their private home to discuss politics. Also the political discussions can be on local politics, like what is needed in their neighborhood and so on. A report of meetings like this is sent to the local volunteer office. In addition to keeping the political discussion going, it is important to keep the support overall. American politicians are very concerned with public opinion polls. Right now it is therefore important for OFA to try an influence the public opinion to the advantage of President Obama. For instance a group of people can work together and send emails to one Senator on a particular issue. When a Senator receives thousands of angry mails for instance indicating that these people will not vote for him if he votes against Obama’s Health Care Reform, it might have an effect. A Senator is like the President also dependent on votes and support to keep his position. The fact that OFA consists of employees and is up and running as a huge organization is extremely important for the 2012 election. If the supporters are able to keep this up, it will be a huge advantage. The organization that Obama built before being elected as a president will already be there when or if he runs for re-election.

Events leading up to the election. When it comes to the financial crisis that appeared right at the end of the presidential race, Solheim does not think it is right to say that Obama won the election because of this, but is it safe to say that the economic crisis did make the victory more realistic. If things had happened differently it would have been a much closer race. Solheim adds that although one might get the impression from Norwegian media that the crisis is over now, in the United States it is very much still going on. This is important to keep in mind when looking at the Health Care issue for instance. Any indication for government spending will meet skepticism especially at a time like this.

What does it take? It is hard so say exactly what it takes to be president of the United States, but Solheim emphasizes personality and the ability to represent trust. Personality and liability are correlated. It is important for the voter to have something to relate to. At the same time there are examples of how one single appearance in the media can ruin everything, even if one have the necessary qualities. Solheim uses Howard Dean as an example. In fact, Dean run a campaign with extensive use of the Internet and the Media, which was a forerunner to Obama’s media use. But, during a speech Mr. Dean appeared far from trustworthy referred to as “the dean scream”, and that was it.

America regained. After working as a volunteer and the election of Obama as president of the United States, Solheim has gained a restored belief in democracy. The disillusions from American politics are shadowed by the joy and the thrill of the victory of Obama. Solheim is reminded of this feeling when he for instance sees an old clip of President Bush jr. and is relieved that Mr. Bush no-longer runs the country. Solheim feels that he has learned a lot about American politics. He understands the limits of what Obama will be able to do, at the same time as he feels proud for being part of choosing him as President. Maybe he has become a little bit American himself, at least the experience has given him a more pragmatic approach to politics finding himself feeling irritated over naïve politicians on the far left back home. Another thing that Solheim is left with from the experience is the increased international engagement. As a volunteer he met other non-Americans who also had left to work for a candidate they themselves could not vote for. There seems to be an increased feeling that what is going on in the United States affects people worldwide.


Election day in Racine Wisconsin. (Photo: Richard Eriksen)


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