By Stephanie Salter
TERRE HAUTE — You can’t just ask for money. You’ve got to involve them. That’s why the famous videos with [David] Plouffe were so important. People felt like insiders. They felt like they knew what we were doing.
— Obama campaign chief of staff Jim Messina, the Nov. 17 New Yorker.
Note to “Obama For America” campaign manager David Plouffe, et al:
Hey, guys. Give the fundraising a rest, will you? Not forever, but for a decent interval that will demonstrate that your astoundingly successful presidential campaign did not go culturally tone deaf on Nov. 5.
Shortly after the election, I didn’t mind the victorious Barack Obama campaign e-mailing to ask millions of online supporters for money to help the Democratic National Committee.
Although I wasn’t ready to even think about opening the old wallet again for politics*** that appeal made some sense. The DNC had done a lot of ground work for the president-elect in often-ignored states; scores of local Democratic candidates were in need of post-campaign infusions.
(***Disclosure distinction: When I was a reporter, covering the news as objectively as humanly possible, I adhered to common journalistic ethics and refrained from donating money to any candidates. That is a good rule that reporters and news editors need to follow. Now that my job is exclusively opinion, I feel free to donate — as long as I am open about it.)
As I said, I didn’t mind being asked, but I didn’t donate, either.
A couple of weeks ago, when Obama introduced most of his dazzling economics team to the world, I was slightly irritated to read about it later that day in an e-mail from Plouffe that ended with the usual, “Please Donate” tab link.
Since the election, Plouffe’s point has been that everyone who “owned” a piece of Barack’s unprecedented march to the White House by donating money and time to the campaign also can own a piece of the new administration. Obama For America will stay in existence to keep — you should excuse my mixed metaphor — the grassroots drums beating for change.
I get the concept, but I am not certain I embrace it.
Like so many Americans, Democrats and Republicans, I am struggling to keep visions of foreclosure, job loss and no medical insurance out of my head. I am worried about paying my utility bills this winter and trying to figure out how to do Christmas, which includes wrenching appeals from the usual charities, on a budget that reminds me of my college student days.
I am not in the market just now to buy a piece of the Obama transition, which is why Plouffe’s “Please Donate” e-mail earlier this week rubbed me the wrong way.
The pitch accompanied a roundup (with video) of Obama’s security squad, easily as dazzling as the economic team. The effect was as Kenneth P. Vogel wrote on Politico.com: “Like Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state? Send me some cash, Barack Obama is telling supporters.”
It is especially irksome given that supporters already contributed to the transition effort via federal taxes. The Presidential Transition fund is providing about $5.2 million in public money to Obama for the assembling of a crew to take over the ship of state.
Now, I realize that $5.2 million won’t buy what it used to. That’s why the Obama folks did what other presidents elect have done: set up a non-profit 501(c)(4) to help pay for the massive process of filling cabinet and staff positions and creating an administration.
According to the Washington Post, the head of the transition team, John Podesta, said another $6.8 million in private funds is the goal for the Obama-Biden Transition Project. The project directors have said they will take no donations from PACs or lobbyists and that contributions, which are not tax deductible, can be no larger than $5,000.
This is good. If I decide I can afford to own a piece of the Obama transition, I will trust that the guys and gals in charge keep their word on that.
Throughout the long, grinding presidential campaign, David Plouffe sent out a fleet of e-mail messages. They were frequent, homey, sometimes righteously angry, but more often very Knute Rockne in their exhortations to keep on fighting for Team Obama. Sometimes the e-mails featured short videos of Barack, Michelle, Joe Biden or Plouffe, himself, just talking into the camera as if he decided to sit down and share a few thoughts before moving on to the next part of the building.
Almost always Plouffe’s e-mails asked, “Please Donate.” Almost always they inspired that action.
In Ryan Lizza’s election post-mortem for the New Yorker, “Battle Plans: How Obama Won,” the campaign’s fundraising prowess was examined. Lizza wrote:
“Much of the intimacy that the campaign created with its supporters was driven by its need — its ravenous appetite — for money. Plouffe, who rarely spoke to reporters on the record, communicated with donors via amateurish videos in which he explained campaign strategy.”
The bottom line, of course, is that it worked. The Obama campaign raised a half-billion dollars online during the 21-month race. As the Washington Post’s Jose Antonio Vargas reported, the breakdown speaks volumes:
Three million donors made 6.5 million donations, 6 million of those gifts were $100 or less. The average contribution was $80, and the average donor gave more than once. A whopping 65 percent of the total funds raised — $150 million — arrived in September; $10 million of that came in the 24 hours after Sarah Palin’s speech to the Republican National Convention.
There is a beauty in the breakdown of those numbers that will forever warm the hearts of Obama supporters. In a time of cynicism and political alienation, 3 million Americans, most of them ordinary, put their money where their hope was.
Maybe some day we will be disappointed and feel like chumps for doing this. But let’s not hurry it along, OK? Give us a few months, Plouffe, to hold onto the proud owner glow.
Stephanie Salter can be reached at (812) 231-4229 or email@example.com