Category Archives: Barack Obama

the new manipulative politics: behavioral economics, microtargeting, and the choice confronting Organizing for Action

In the era of digital networks, you can enable waves of innovation and creativity by inviting people to form their own groups and contribute their own tools and culture. In the era of digital networks, you can also manipulate masses of people into doing what you want them to do by maintaining and exploiting a vast merged database of human activities, interconnections, and expressions.

These are warring impulses and rival temptations. Each is enabled by recent technology, but each also reflects a whole philosophy or worldview that makes it seem exciting and desirable. Since 2007, the Obama team has been pulled in both directions. The President’s new grassroots lobbying operation, Organizing for Action (OFA), could still go either way. I don’t think the administration and its friends recognize that they face a fateful choice, nor do they understand the dangers inherent in the new manipulative politics.

Barack Obama has a special affinity for decentralized politics, rooted in his years as a community organizer, and he was perfectly positioned to take advantage of the populist power of the new digital and social media. Back in May 2008, Steve Teles and I wrote:

While [Hilary] Clinton has depended for support on large-dollar donors and existing Democratic Party organization, Obama has shown an ability to mobilize thousands of citizens for his campaign. He has raised money from over a million people, and his Facebook page has 800,000 supporters.

It is precisely this network, which connects the Internet to the grassroots, that will need to be activated to counter the furious opposition to health care reform by supporters of the status quo. Obama should say in no uncertain terms that as soon as he is elected in November, he will immediately make good on his promise that his campaign is about what “we” can do. He should commit to turning his remarkable electoral machine into the most powerful mass movement for policy change since the civil rights movement.

After the election, the administration did not engage Obama’s grassroots base to counter the fierce opposition we had predicted. I lamented that lapse in a 2010 Huffington Post piece and many others also observed it. Lately, the President has explicitly called his failure to engage supporters his worst mistake, recalling that the “energy just kind of dissipated, and we were only playing an inside game.”

The energy of 2008 had many sources–including the simple desire to vote the Republicans out–but it was sustained by citizens who invented their own messages and built their own networks. Again, this strategy was enabled by new technologies (the Internet, smart phones, and social networking sites), but it also reflected a philosophy that gave its proponents morale and inspiration. They saw themselves as pushing power to the edges of the network.

The 2012 reelection campaign, however, was won by “backroom number crunchers,” analysts with access to a vast national database. According to Time’s Michael Scherer, they could “run tests predicting which types of people would be persuaded by certain kinds of appeals. Call lists in field offices, for instance, didn’t just list names and numbers; they also ranked names in order of their persuadability, with the campaign’s most important priorities first.” (For more reporting on what Reid Cherlin called the “whiz-bang technologies and startup geniuses” of the Obama campaign, see this summary.)

All this was possible because we now conduct so many of our routine activities online, where they can be saved and tracked. What we buy, whom we know, and how we vote can all be entered into databases that are sold and merged. Meanwhile, behavioral economics, prospect theory, the latest marketing science, and popular works by the likes of Malcolm Gladwell and Cass Sunstein tell us that: (1) people’s behavior is predictable, but it does not depend on rational calculations of benefits versus costs; (2) we can get people to do what we want by subtly shifting messages or the way we frame choices; and (3) this is all good  because we can attain desirable social outcomes without paying people or threatening people to do the right thing. Governments needn’t ban or tax harmful products; they can “nudge” citizens into avoiding them. Campaigns don’t have to raise billions of dollars for broadcast ads, but can instead hire a few computer geniuses to target messages to people who think they want them.

Indeed, the Obama reelection campaign got its voters out, including (as we find) young voters–notwithstanding evidence that they were relatively unenthusiastic during the campaign. We found in October that about 15% of young people had been contacted by a presidential campaign, about 60% of those by the Democrats. The targeting was efficient: young African American women in Southeastern states got relentless attention, for example, and everyone received messages tailored to their interests. West Coast females in their forties heard from George Clooney because, as Scherer reports, the actor “had an almost gravitational pull” on women “likely to hand over cash.”

These skills have evident value to private corporations who (Suzy Khimm reports today) are courting the Obama campaign’s “young geniuses.” But deep in her story is an indication that the campaign’s success was at least partly a result of sharing power rather than micro-targeting voters:

Sam Graham-Felsen, the “chief blogger” of Obama’s 2008 campaign, found that private audiences were so willing to pay for his insights that he was able to leave his post-election job at Blue State Digital for the speaking circuit. But he wasn’t always sure that corporations were thrilled about following his advice. “I talked about the freedom I was given as a blogger to really speak with an authentic voice,” he says. “But the main hurdle is a lot of corporate audiences are terrified of giving up message control.”

Now the same techniques and skills are being handed over to a formally independent grassroots lobby, the OFA.

One problem with that effort is the source of cash. In the LA Times, Matea Gold reports, “Obama stayed for two hours at the Organizing for Action dinner, whose attendees included wealthy donors who had been asked to give $50,000 each. During meetings last month between the group’s leaders and top campaign fundraisers, the idea was floated to name those who raise $500,000 a year to an advisory board that would meet quarterly with the president.” My former boss Fred Wertheimer argues–and I agree–that “President Obama has set out on a dangerous and unprecedented path as he begins his second term in office. … As far as I know, this is the first time a president has outsourced an important responsibility of his presidency to a private sector organization that is financed by unlimited private funds and that is, in effect, operating as an arm of the presidency.”

But it’s not only the source of money that is troubling. OFA may bring to governance and advocacy the methods of data-mining, micro-targeting, and experimentally tested messages that helped the President win reelection. I understand that the center-left doesn’t want to disarm unilaterally, and if these techniques work, they probably must be used in some form. But they pose serious dangers:

  1. You can use people for what you need and then ignore them. The campaign was eager to mobilize young African American women in Southeastern states last fall. But what incentive has OFA to solicit their opinions now? They don’t have a lot of money to contribute, and most live in safe districts that are sure votes for or against the administration in Congress. OFA will turn its attention to donors and persuadable people in swing districts. But what kind of a social contract is that? You vote for someone so that he can ask someone else’s opinion after the election.
  2. A candidate can say different things to different people without being accountable for his overall positions. To be sure, that has always been possible behind closed doors, and the Internet has in some ways made it more difficult. Mitt Romney’s “47%” remarks went to audiences he didn’t expect. But that was a blatant error. Now candidates can subtly shade their messages to increase their impact on the specific target audiences without anyone noticing.
  3. A combination of money and high-tech expertise now confers power. It’s only a matter of luck if the good side happens to have more of those commodities. And even the good guys may be over-influenced by the people who provide their money and tools.
  4. Campaigns and governments can get people to do what they want without the accountability that comes from spending money or making and enforcing rules. For example, if the government compels everyone to buy a certain kind of insurance, its power is overt and can be challenged. But if it enrolls everyone in the insurance scheme and allows them to opt out, it appears to have created a choice. Yet behavioral economics predicts that lots of people will end up with the insurance. In that case, the government shapes behavior without appearing to have coerced anyone. Likewise, if you get a personalized message from George Clooney asking you to contribute to Obama, it all seems very optional and inoffensive until you realize that data-mining and cluster analysis predicted you would open your wallet at the mere sound of his name (while someone else heard from Jay-Z).

Microtargeting is like using drones: it’s great if you’re the only one who has them. Of course, it’s a lot better to be microtargeted than to be hit with a drone strike, but in both cases, the only decision-maker is the one with the machinery. Even if OFA makes effective use of the new data analytics to advance good causes between now and 2016, they must also consider whether these tools are a net benefit for democracy, and if not, what to do about that.

reading the inauguration

Last time, we were there. This time, the inauguration was a TV show for me and my family, but still full of interesting themes and messages.

The citizenship theme: In the third major speech in a row (his nomination speech in Charlotte, his election night remarks on Nov. 6, and yesterday at his inauguration), the President chose to conclude with a peroration about citizenship. Once again, it didn’t get much attention. The New York Times David Brooks’ thought that “Obama made his case beautifully” (overall), but “We still have one party that talks the language of government and one that talks the language of the market. We have no party that is comfortable with civil society …”

I’ve argued that the Obama-era Democratic Party does actually favor civil society. But the administration has not done much concretely and practically to encourage citizen action. That means that the president’s invocation of “we the people” can be overlooked as a cliché or reduced to a request to vote Democratic and then support an expanded state. For instance, The Atlantic’s Garance Franke-Ruta wrote,  “Obama invoked the power of those citizens, and while it is usually an unoriginal political trope to do so, the fact that his election and re-election were so dependent on turnout by those less connected to the political system made his phrases seem more authentic.” We are still waiting for a time when a president can invoke citizens’ power and be understood to mean more than voting or supporting progressive legislation.

The work theme: One vital aspect of citizenship is “public work,” or building the commonwealth together. That was a central theme in Richard Blanco’s inaugural poem:

One sky: since the Appalachians and Sierras claimed
their majesty, and the Mississippi and Colorado worked
their way to the sea. Thank the work of our hands:
weaving steel into bridges, finishing one more report
for the boss on time, stitching another wound
or uniform, the first brush stroke on a portrait,
or the last floor on the Freedom Tower
jutting into a sky that yields to our resilience.

All kinds of people work–doing work of all kinds. Their identities determine their work, whether they are blue-collar moms ringing up groceries or middle-aged professional  poets. Whether they work for pay or for free, for the government or for a business, they always work for themselves, for their children, and for the whole community. They are diverse but they build one common world.

I didn’t think Blanco’s contribution was exactly a poem; it was not a carefully constructed, richly allusive “well-wrought urn.” I thought it was more of a speech with irregular line-breaks. But that was appropriate for an inauguration–we couldn’t have absorbed a lyric poem. And, as a speech, Blanco’s complemented the President’s very nicely by offering a citizens’ perspective on the national efforts that Obama invoked.

The North and the South: The 2012 electoral map recalled the Civil War, with almost all of the Old Confederacy colored red, and virtually the whole Union, blue. At the Inaugural, Senator Schumer (of New York) invoked Lincoln’s decision to finish the Capitol dome under the eyes of confederate armies and recalled the 150th anniversary of the 13th Amendment. Then a Brooklyn choir sang the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” A Southern senator (Lamar Alexander) made brief and gracious remarks, but otherwise, this was a Yankee show. The President did, however, invoke the man from Atlanta who spoke at the opposite end of the Mall–in authentically Southern cadences–50 years ago, saying, “This is the faith that I go back to the South with. … Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia! Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!”

The President’s argument: The Inaugural speech was an argument for activist government, rooting that idea in American history. One’s response will depend deeply on whether one trusts the president. Inevitably, an inaugural address glosses over tradeoffs and difficulties. That’s no problem if you like the speaker, but frustrating if you don’t. In the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf decried Obama’s “audacity of fluff.” Obama said, for example, “Preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.” Friedersdorf replies:

It’s trivially true that no single person can train all the math teachers we need, or build all the research labs. But it hardly follows that we need to do all those things together, “as one nation, and one people.” Some of the math teachers can be trained by Jesuit institutions that secular Americans are uninclined to support. … . A great strength of America is the fact that we don’t have to do everything collectively, “as one nation, and one people.” Individuals and diverse groups work alone or in private collaboration to pursue their own notions of the good, and everyone benefits from their greatest achievements. … In a pluralistic nation, actually doing anything as one is either a vapid illusion or creeping fascism. Progressives feel that way when they’re told opposing a particular war is un-American.

In fact, Obama endorsed “skepticism of central authority.” He acknowledged two sides of the argument about liberty and community. But George W. Bush used to talk about compassion and human rights. For those of us who deeply distrusted that president, those rhetorical flourishes were infuriating. So I can see how someone who views Obama as casual about individual liberty would be offended by the speech.

And yet, it wasn’t vapid or self-evident. It was an argument for moderately progressive policies, as one can tell from the outraged responses on the right. E.g., Jennifer Rubin in the Washington Post:

If there had been any doubt, the president’s second inaugural address did confirm he is a dogged collectivist with little appreciation for the dangers we face in the world.

After some overwritten references to the Founding Fathers he proclaimed that “preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.” Really? Economic prosperity may require it. The goal of economic equality may need it. Advancement in mass transit may demand it. But personal freedoms are obtained by limited government, the rule of law and a free market (relatively speaking) where one can achieve his aims and fulfill his personal goals. But this is not the America President Obama envisions.

If Rubin really does not see how an active government can enhance personal freedoms, then she is on the opposite side of a serious debate with the President. He thinks, for example, that it will be easier to start a small business once the Affordable Health Care Act helps you and your prospective employees with health insurance. The President might be wrong, but he was saying something.

Inauguration Day began for me with Paul Krugman’s column entitled “The Big Deal,” which is a positive appraisal of the first Obama administration. Krugman has been going after Obama since the 2007 primaries. I’ve written at least 18 blog posts countering his critique, albeit always with respect for his far superior grasp of economics. Krugman doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy who would write a favorable column just because it’s someone’s inauguration day. Rather, I think the books have closed on the first Obama term and the bottom line looks better than progressives thought after each specific episode. Krugman and other commentators to the President’s left are taking stock of the domestic achievements of the first four years, viewing them in a broader context, recognizing the obstacles, and concluding that Obama achieved more than any president has since 1970. That doesn’t mean that they will or should let up the pressure. Leadership, as FDR said, is deciding which pressure to cave to, and Obama needs a constant push from the left. But a just appraisal would place Obama squarely in the progressive tradition that he extolled in his Second Inaugural.

foreign policy, ideology, and the election

At their final debate, the two major party candidates seemed to converge on a doctrine that might be called cautious amoralism. All that counts are the economic interests of the United States and the security interests of the US and Israel–but we won’t promote those interests through large-scale, unilateral, military actions, because that is too expensive and risky.

This may not be either candidate’s real position. Bill Clinton tried to justify US intervention in Bosnia on the grounds of economic self-interest, and that was a classic example of virtue trying to pass as vice. Likewise, in their different ways, Obama and Romney may be more idealistic than they sounded on Monday night. (Or less so.) But they chose to converge on a rhetoric of cautious amoralism.

Polls show that most Americans don’t care much about foreign policy, but among those who do, two groups should strongly dissent from this consensus. I will name them together without suggesting an equivalence of worthiness or influence. It’s just that in political terms, they are rivals and foils.

Neoconservatives profess to believe in muscular, Wilsonian interventionism, “toughness” in support of American security and “democratization” overseas. They are relatively eager to use on-the-ground military intervention.

The peace movement thinks that American military and intelligence power is not a solution; it is a problem. Guantanamo, drone strikes, US invasions, West Bank settlements, and even the sanctions against Iran are threats to world peace and American values.

Both of these groups “lost” on Monday night, because neither one had a supporter on the debate stage. But the political situation is different for each.

Despite getting no explicit support from Moderate Mitt, neoconservatives have written enthusiastic reviews of his performance. Kevin Drum has a summary. Why would they react so positively? I propose: 1) They think that Romney will actually support their positions, or at least the expansion of military spending, and they want him to win. 2) They are somewhat chastened by reality and don’t believe that we will actually invade Iran, so they will settle for Romney’s recent positions 3) They hope for jobs in a Romney administration–for themselves or their friends–and that depends on his winning. And 4) Even though they disagree in part with Obama, they never believed the Tea Party talking points about “apology tours” and anti-Americanism in the White House, so they don’t mind Romney’s dropping those points to look moderate.

At least some on the peace side of the spectrum have been far more critical. Glenn Greenwald called the debate “horrid,” “wretched, with almost no redeeming qualities.” He live-blogged:

US foreign policy actually does have a significant relationship to the economy- namely, the massive military, the constant aggression, war and occupation, the hundreds of military bases around the world all drain resources away from far more constructive purposes – but neither of these two candidates will dare to question any of those imperial premises, so they can’t actually address the prime economic impact of US foreign policy. … Obama boasts of the massive amount of military spending under his presidency. Romney then says he wants to spend more.

Greenwald argued that Obama was playing George W. Bush to Romney’s John Kerry on Monday night.

Neoconservatives have far more influence than people in Greenwald’s camp, regardless of the current political situation. Neoconservatives always retain their ties to the military, their binders full of experienced individuals who can step into senior administration roles, and their platforms in the US media (rather than the Guardian, where Greenwald blogs). Being more powerful and more in synch with actual policy–even under a Democratic president–they can afford to tolerate a little laxness in their nominee’s rhetoric.

But that doesn’t mean that Obama should ignore the peace camp. There are always people to the left of an incumbent Democratic president; the Median Voter Theorem suggests that’s pretty much inevitable. As someone who’s not very radical on most issues, I don’t especially mind seeing the president outflanked. But this is going to be a close election in which turnout will be key. Obama needs the people to his left to vote. My social network connections tell me that a bunch of them do not intend to turn out. Many were already mad about the president’s economic policy, but I sense they would vote for him–or at least against Romney–if economics were all. Right now, it’s not the lack of a public option in the health bill that concerns them; it’s the drone strikes. They may only represent 2% of the electorate, but that’s about the margin in this election. I think it would be smart politics to give them some respect.

taking the president seriously about citizenship

My new Huffington Post piece is entitled Taking the President Seriously About Citizenship. In it, I cite our recent work on the economic benefits of civic engagement and connect that to the President’s speech about citizenship in Charlotte. An excerpt:

Mr. Obama’s talk of citizenship usually draws applause and cheers, as it did when he accepted the Democratic nomination in Charlotte. But pundits and policymakers never pay attention to it. They regard talk of citizenship as a politician’s cliché — like saying you are delighted to be in New Hampshire in January. The only question reporters asked about the Charlotte speech was whether it had fallen flat or done the job. Nobody wrote about the substance of the citizenship idea.

I see two reasons for their lack of interest: pundits doubt that active citizenship has important consequences, and they don’t see its relevance to policy.

Scholars who empirically study the consequences of civic engagement can demonstrate that it has important consequence …

After summarizing some of those consequences, I argue that we need a concrete policy agenda for citizenship.

(I am obsessive about blogging here every day, and this was supposed to be yesterday’s post; but the Huffington Post can take more than 24 hours to approve submissions–hence the delay.

Obama on Citizenship in Charlotte, revisited

In the peroration of his Charlotte speech, the President spoke forcefully about citizenship. Because that topic is my life’s concern–and because I have such high regard for Obama’s pre-presidential work on citizenship–I gave the speech a critical review. I implied that he had said too little, too late. But half my Facebook friends quoted that section with great enthusiasm. And the next night in a pizza restaurant, I heard strangers talking about citizenship excitedly. So it is quite possible that the speech resonated with Americans. On my own second reading, I would agree that phrases like this one were pretty good: “As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together — (cheers, applause) — through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government.”

The “self-governance” theme was, however, lost on the punditocracy, who always view talk of citizenship as an empty politician’s cliché, like saying that you are excited to be back in Tar Heel Country with such a wonderful crowd. Obama talked about citizenship from the day he announced his candidacy until Election Night, 2008, and he never got much coverage for it. (See my collection of his citizenship quotes, very few of which were covered by the press.)

Last week, again, opinion writers simply ignored the citizenship part of the President’s speech. The few mentions were dismissive. Ron Fournier in the Atlantic cited a sentence about citizenship as an example of how prosaic Obama had been, calling it “a chestnut channeling both Abe Lincoln and John F. Kennedy.” Timothy Noah wrote in The New Republic:

The malaise echo was also audible in Obama’s repetition of his 2008 theme, “You’re the change.” I don’t mind being the change if the change is the legislative triumph that was passage of the Affordable Care Act—and, to his credit, Obama did say, “You’re the reason there’s a little girl with a heart disorder in Phoenix who’ll get the surgery she needs because an insurance company can’t limit her coverage.” I’m also the reason, Obama said, that a young man can get his medical degree (I guess because of Obama’s student-loan policy, though he didn’t really make that clear) and that a young immigrant won’t be deported (thanks to a recent policy shift by the department of homeland security), and that there’s no more Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and that there’s no more Iraq war. I’m happy to share the credit for all that. But I don’t like being the change if that means I’m responsible for the continuing drop in median income, or persistent unemployment, or Obama’s own subdued state of mind.

Noah assumes that the only way he can exercise citizenship is to vote for Democrats, who will then use their power over the national government to solve problems for us. In other words, Noah is not interested in being much of a citizen. He continues:

“I’m hopeful because of you,” Obama said at the end of his speech. He then recited a litany of inspiring examples of people showing grit under various kinds of adversity. But yikes, who wants that responsibility? What if I’m feeling grumpy (as I became, for instance, while listening to this speech)? I need a president who can cheer me up, not a president who needs me to cheer him up. The president can’t afford to outsource his optimism.

Noah’s reaction is characteristic of the national press corps, and it goes a long way to explaining our predicament. Obama believes that you can’t advance progressive goals if people distrust government, and they won’t trust it until they can participate in it and control it. (See my defense of that theory in The Democratic Strategist.) The President has not actually increased public engagement in government, and that is a failure. One reason for his failure is that liberal opinion-makers and policy-makers almost universally ignore or disagree with his basic theory. The only good news is that quite a few American citizens  share it.

[PS: I am sure there are exceptions: writers who do understand the citizenship theme. Harold Meyerson may be one. I welcome other links.]