Obama’s campaign can reshape communities

In a column that ran last week (“For all Washington’s ills, what is change’s real roadblock? Gidoudavote, of course!” 1/15), Amanda Eckerson wrote of her frustration with the current Get Out the Vote style of campaign. We share her frustration.

We campaigned for Barack Obama in New Hampshire in the days before the primary and were struck by the amazing energy and sheer size of the volunteer turnout. This tremendous enthusiasm was entirely funneled by Get Out the Vote with unclear results — while one house visit and phone call might improve the resident’s opinion of Obama, the third visit and twelfth call is more likely to irritate. Eckerson concluded her column by calling for a campaign effort “daring enough to generate their own media, by staging events that were worth covering,” and argued: “Instead of simply talking about change, a truly savvy campaign would change the way they run.” Ms. Eckerson was, in effect, calling for a fundamental shift in the way that on-the-ground volunteer campaigning is marshaled.

We believe that Barack Obama has the opportunity to make that fundamental change, and ask a question: What if a portion of the grassroots campaign were dedicated to visible public service projects?

We have three examples of what such projects might look like. The first is simple: neighborhood cleanup. Residents driving through town squares and walking through local parks would find groups of enthusiastic Obama volunteers picking up cigarette butts and candy wrappers. The volunteers on this project, and all such projects, would be decked out in Obama T-shirts, stickers and buttons.

Our second sample service project is a 5K run through Main Street to raise money for a local charity. In Connecticut, our state, we could support Operation Fuel, which subsidizes heating for low-income families. Obama has spoken about the impact of high fuel prices on working families, so this type of service complements Obama’s message.

Finally, Obama volunteers could work through local YMCAs to further a myriad of small-scale local projects. These range from re-tiling the bathroom in a local women’s shelter to distributing children’s books from the local book bank. Though often less visible than traditional campaigning, these efforts have the potential to generate tremendous word-of-mouth credibility and support for Obama.

The community benefits of such projects are clear. However, we think that such an approach offers a wide variety of strategic benefits for Obama as well.

Such a campaign strategy puts into practice Obama’s message about forging a different kind of politics. Beyond the ultimate hope of persuading citizens to vote for Obama, it would prove that campaigning can be a race to the top (who can do the most good?) as opposed to the usual race to the bottom.

Moreover, such a campaign strategy reinforces the theme that supporting Obama isn’t about supporting a political candidate, but about being part of a movement. Supporting Barack Obama isn’t just about wanting to put a candidate in the White House; it’s about supporting a common vision of a nation built on community.

There are other benefits as well — it would be inspiring work for campaign volunteers, especially as a break after endless phone-banking; it reminds voters of Obama’s own years of dedication to community organizing; it fits in with Obama’s presidential agenda of increasing service opportunities for Americans; it’s a subtle demonstration of the strength of the Obama campaign, where they have enough volunteers to run an effective field organization and contribute to the communities in which they are working.

But most fundamentally, Obama’s message has always been about what we, together, can do for our country. To a cynic, it can sound like a hokey message. This sort of campaign strategy puts Obama’s money where his mouth is. Such a campaign strategy would show that Obama’s message of change is about changing reality, not just rhetoric.

Justin Kosslyn is a junior in Ezra Stiles College and David Manners-Weber is a sophomore in Calhoun College.

Comments