Yet another evening of kvetching about the health care debate was winding to a close Tuesday night on The Rachel Maddow Show when guest Bill Maher made a great point about President Barack Obama’s inability to get his message across.
“Where are all Obama’s people to help him with this, by the way?” Maher asked. “You know, I mean, he is Michael Jordan on a very, very, very bad team. Where are all the people who were so enthused during the campaign? You know, that was the fun part, the election.
“Now comes the hard part. You know, where’s Oprah? Where are all of the people who were out there on the campaign trail? We need them now. This is the actual hard work of government.”
It’s a valid point.
Could it be the Obama administration just hasn’t stayed in touch?
Remember the summer of 2008? That was the campaign summer, when candidate Obama was the king of all media, particularly new media.
One of his flashiest tricks, though, fizzled: the attempt to alert supporters and anyone else who was interested of his choice for running mate via text message, before traditional media broke the news.
It was surprising to get word through — egads! — this newspaper in my driveway. The traditional media broke the story right before it was time to put the papers to bed and about three hours before the text announcing the choice of Joe Biden.
But it soon became clear what that ploy was all about: mobilizing supporters.
The Obama campaign had succeeded in getting scores of text and e-mail addresses, and they were going to use them.
During the Democratic National Convention, there were messages to make sure to tune in for speeches by Obama’s wife Michelle; Biden; and the man himself speaking in a football stadium. As the campaign went into the fall, there were more text and e-mail appeals to watch, to campaign and, of course, for money. In the final weeks, there were even geographically targeted appeals to get to our neighboring swing states, Indiana and Ohio, to help on the ground.
If you had signed up, whenever your text chime went off, you almost expected it to be the Obama campaign, and it was a safe bet there was something in the in-box, too.
When the campaign was over and Obama won, we were told that the e-mail and text addresses would be kept to help relay information and mobilize people to help support the administration’s initiatives.
But Barack and Joe don’t seem to write anymore.
The campaign that was built on a mastery of new media has taken a traditional approach to getting the message out.
Listening to Obama’s town hall meeting in Raleigh, N.C., one could tell that the president was frustrated that people weren’t viewing his stimulus package as a success and about misinformation about the health care plan — which really isn’t a concrete plan yet.
The people who seem to have harnessed the Web for the health care debate and grabbed traditional media attention are Obama’s opposition.
A lot of this is due to a media obsession with conflict. Beyond getting officials off-kilter and drowning out one side of the debate, organizers who have directed opponents of health care reform to disrupt town hall meetings had to know that shouting down a U.S. senator would get them and their point of view on TV. A lot.
Cable news network anchors seemed genuinely disappointed when Obama’s town hall meetings did not devolve into screaming matches, as those of some congressmen had.
Last summer, candidate Obama seemed to be able to break through the noise of “pals around with terrorists” and the like. “Death panels” has seemed a bit more impenetrable for the president.
And on the new media, new communication side, it doesn’t seem as if there’s a lot of effort. On Twitter, @whitehouse and @BarackObama tweet less than once a day. E-mail arrives occasionally, and the text campaign is nonexistent, at least as far as those of us who were in that loop during the campaign.
The campaign that looked as if it had mastered new media now looks like an administration stuck in the 20th century.
Maybe as Congress prepares to reconvene after Labor Day, things will change. Maher was hardly the first to note that the administration is sorely lacking its campaign mojo, and there have been some events like a Thursday meeting in Washington that had an online component, which appear designed to reconnect with that campaign base.
And like any administration, Obama has lessons to learn. Here’s an important one: New media isn’t just for campaigns.