As President Barack Obama delivered the State of the Union address, activists involved in his new non-profit advocacy group, Organizing for Action, gathered in local meetings around the country to watch and cheer him on. The new 501(c)4 organization, which is an offshoot of his re-election campaign, aims to support the president’s policies and to project the power of the White House beyond Washington into local communities and media.
I joined a gathering in southern California, which rented out a local pub and tuned in on the big screen. The buildup to the event was almost as interesting as the event itself. I received several email invitations to join a State of the Union-watching party; once I had accepted, I received two confirmation emails with detailed directions, plus a personal phone call the day before the address just to make sure I knew where to find the event.
When I arrived, a small crowd had already gathered. The sign-in sheet was not simply a record of attendance; instead, organizers asked guests to sign up for one or more issue campaigns: “gun violence,” immigration reform, and the president’s budget plan. People were quite friendly, and unmistakably liberal; one discussion debated whether it was the military or the police that had pushed LA cop-killer Christopher Dorner over the edge.
We all settled down at the bar or around tables to watch the event. Loud applause broke out for President Obama when he entered the chamber, and at several times during the speech itself. The group was particularly pleased by lines about climate change and on immigration reform, though the clapping stopped when the president spoke of “going to the back of the line behind the folks trying to come here legally,” a conservative theme.
There were a few boos, particularly when Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) appeared onscreen, or when Speaker of the House Rep. John Boehner (R-OH) failed to react positively to something the president had said. There were also some gasps and whispers at stories the president related about victims and survivors of gun violence, towards the end of his address; people seemed genuinely moved, just as they were in the congressional gallery.
Immediately after the speech ended, organizers turned the sound down on Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL)’s response and set up a laptop to hear a special message from president Obama, who would be addressing Organizing for Action activists on a national conference call. After a few minutes, Obama’s voice came through the speakers, telling the activists that he would be asking for their help in pushing Congress to adopt his second-term agenda.
There was something slightly different in his tone of voice. This was not a head of state addressing a nation; this was a local community organizer talking to his volunteers–not over them, but at them. The contrast in style created a feeling of intimacy, which made listeners feel he was speaking personally to them. Not everyone was convinced; one woman told me she doubted he would be able to achieve all he had set out to do.
Regardless, the very fact that the evening happened the way it did was a success for the new organization. The Obama camp believes it is less important to convince people with words than to condition them with deeds. And the deeds are not that complicated. For all the talk about high-tech voter turnout programs, the methods Obama uses to win are decidedly old-school. He wins because Republicans don’t bother to do the same.