From Tuesday’s Financial Times:

“People are really missing their daily Barack Obama e-mail,” the adviser to the transition team says. “They’re missing having something to get involved in.”


In his quest to transform the nature of the presidency through grassroots engagement, President-elect Obama is confronting a problem as old as the republic itself. The challenge for Obama and David Plouffe is to try to figure out how to sustain and channel the political activism of his campaign into effective and transformative governance. Essentially, Obama is confronting the second great argument in American politics: how to constitute the revolution (the first being: Should America declare its independence?).

In some ways, the second debate is a forgotten debate. The enduring success of the Constitution obscures the fact that Thomas Jefferson and others expressed deep ambivalence over the U.S. Constitution’s concentration of power in a central government. The Anti-Federalists felt the Constitution would choke the political freedom that they had experienced in their respective states and communities (culminating with the Declaration of Independence). In his letters to Adams at the end of his public life, Jefferson lamented the Constitution’s failure to incorporate the town halls and other avenues for local participation into the Constitution.

To use Hannah Arendt’s words, “the Constitution itself provided a public space only for the representatives of the people and not for the people themselves.” The various structures of the Constitution might have saved the United States from the dangers of mob rule, but it “could not save the people from lethargy and inattention to public business.”

Obama, like Jefferson, shares the belief that participation in politics is a fundamental human good that should be promoted and encouraged (you won’t find that belief in the Federalists Papers). In trying to transfer the enthusiasm and engagement of the campaign, Obama will face considerable institutional challenges. The nature of the presidency does not lend itself to the collaborative and participatory structure he built for his campaign. For instance, as the Financial Times pointed out, the law prohibits his administration from using the 13 million-strong e-mail list his campaign compiled. Additionally, the modern-day presidency is an office insulated by fences, motorcades and armed guards.

Despite his team’s considerable efforts, Obama will simply not be able to sustain the engagement of his supporters like he did during the campaign. The magic of the Iowa Caucuses, like the revolutionary town halls, will not be able to be replicated in Washington. However, what he could do to satisfy the political hunger of his supporters is offer them the same piece of advice Jefferson would have offered them: Get involved in politics at the local level.

I have a deep respect for the ability of the Internet to mobilize voters, but I do believe it has its limits. The Internet offers an unprecedented ability for persons to connect politically with one another, but it will not alter the structure of the Constitution. It is only at the local communities, where political action and power are readily available, that people will likely realize the kind of transformative and authentic political experience that they have so obviously been craving.


The views expressed in this blog do not represent the views or opinions of Generations United.