By Umut Newbury
June 15, 2009
Last week, we saw an image of an American president that has been foreign to us for a little while. In Cairo, tens of thousands of Muslims cheered for President Barack Obama, as he spoke of a different world with a different United States leading it. He quoted from the three major Western religious texts and brought Egyptians to their feet with applause. As President Obama works on his second 100 days in the White House, it is a good time to take a look back and reflect on his campaign that brought him there.
Danny Schechter’s new documentary Barack Obama: People’s President, is a refreshing take on Obama’s campaign to the presidency. Rather than cutting and pasting coverage of talking heads telling us how Obama became the president, Schechter tries an old technique known to print journalists of yesteryear: showing it. His film opens with the famous “Yes We Can” video created by will.i.am and continues with 90 minutes of very diverse footage of the grassroots campaign that got Obama elected.
Anyone who was an official volunteer for the Obama campaign, or an unofficial volunteer (disclosure here, this reviewer was one of them) who lobbied friends, relatives, neighbors to register to vote, donate money, vote and pass on the word will enjoy seeing this big picture view of the campaign. As for those who voted and volunteered for other candidates, they would be mistaken to dismiss this film as a victory dance. People’s President lays out the steps of the Obama campaign’s success for anyone willing to learn how it was done.
The theme of Schechter’s film is the people behind the people’s candidate. Schechter’s premise is simple enough: Obama’s success lies in his campaign’s innovative use of the Internet and other new technologies, which helped lure the youth vote and reach out to many other hard-to-get constituencies. The film has footage of self-described Obama Camps across the nation, as well as an array of creativity the campaign fostered on the Internet, from will.i.am to Obama Girl and to lesser-known clips such as the “Irish Obama” and “How Obama won the KKK.” Schechter also has some experts analyzing all of this, such as NBC’s Jonathan Alter and MoveOn.org’s David Fenton. Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker magazine recollects his meeting with Obama as the moment he realized that the candidate was exactly how he portrayed himself to the masses, “thoughtful, calm, disciplined, well-organized, human and strong.”
Any campaign, Schechter argues, needs money and people. The Obama campaign got both in unforeseen amounts. Fenton says Obama won because the online tactics “broke the grip of large donors on the Democratic Party.” People like Scott Cohen describe how they felt when they heard Obama’s speech in Springfield. “I wrote the largest check of my life, for $2,300, and talked others to do so.” Cohen later had the idea to create the “An Obama Minute” video, where he asked people to give as much as they can. The first time the video aired, it raised more than $200,000.
The other strength of the Obama campaign, People’s President shows, was the superiority of its operation. The Chicago headquarters had the slogan, “No Drama with Obama.” Unlike other campaigns, there was no internal fighting, no unauthorized leaks or embarrassments. They had a tight, smooth running organization, with a simple message, “Change.” As Jonathan Alter points out, while Hillary Clinton played with different messages, the Obama campaign stuck to its original message and added a simple slogan, “Yes We Can.”
Miguel Orozco wanted to help out by reaching to Latino voters, so he created a Web site and produced a video, “Viva Obama,” a corrido about the candidate. While the media was focusing on “the front runner” Hillary Clinton, the Obama campaign was rallying its supporters and creating a groundswell. At its Chicago headquarters, the campaign had more than 50 people on the media team, making videos and constantly emailing people. Alter sums it up: “It was the perfect meeting of man and the moment and technology.”
The “netroots” campaign style came into being in 2004, during Howard Dean’s run for the Democratic candidacy for president. Dean utilized “meetups” to get his volunteers and supporters organized. Four years later, the Obama campaign took the netroots campaign to a new level. With blogs, YouTube, Facebook, Flickr and texting, they managed to get millions of emails, 10 million phone numbers, which resulted in both donations and warm bodies to find more voters. (Despite the recent folly of most desperate politicians and cable TV talking heads, Twitter was the least utilized of the new technologies.)
People’s President shows how Obama the community organizer built a campaign of community organizers. The volunteers were highly organized. Camp Obama trained more neighborhood volunteers, who in turn helped knock on millions of doors and make millions of calls.
The Obama campaign also marked a generational shift. Nadine Hack says in the film that this was a “passing of the torch,” “no longer us guys from the Sixties doing this.” Comedian Sarah Silverman and filmmaker Dan Tilson tried to capitalize on this power. They created TheGreatSchlep.com, a campaign targeted specifically to grandchildren of elderly Jewish voters in Florida, asking them to talk their grandparents into voting for Obama.
MTV’s Liz Nord says that it was obvious to those at her office early on that Obama was the youth candidate. The videos submitted by their citizen journalists and other reporters were almost all pro-Obama. Amber Ettinger, a.k.a. Obama Girl, says she made her video with Ben Relles when Obama’s polling numbers were at a mere 11 percent. But, people kept posting more videos on YouTube and other sites, linking them from their Facebook pages and kept texting those to their friends.
People’s Candidate not only shows Obama’s success with the voters here but globally. After the November election, there was a weeklong celebration at Obama’s father’s Kenyan village and the Kenyan government declared Election Day a national holiday. Archbishop Desmond Tutu says in the film that it’s a fantastic thing that the next occupant of the White House will be a person of color. “We want to wish him very well for the sake of the world.”
People’s Candidate provides a better understanding of what a unique campaign Obama’s really was; however, because it is such a timely film, the viewer can sense the urgency the editors felt to finish it up before too long after Obama’s entry into the White House. It’s organized a tad haphazardly. Some of the chapters run too long, others too short. As much fun it was to see the various Internet videos, the movie could have benefited from having some more on the ground coverage of volunteers and organizers. On the whole, though, People’s Candidate has a lot of information that will help remind us how the White House was won in 2008. As President Obama said so himself, “But above all, I will never forget who this victory truly belongs to — it belongs to you.”
Barack Obama: People’s President
The Campaign That Changed History
Directed by Danny Schechter
2009 Choices, Inc.