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Obama Aide Envisions a Game-Changing Movement

By Garance Franke-Ruta
AUSTIN -- Defending Sen. Barack Obama's controversial January praise of former president Ronald Reagan, deputy campaign manager Steve Hildebrand today gave Netroots Nation attendees some deeper insights into how Obama and his wife, Michelle, planned his presidential campaign as a movement-building run that would register millions of new voters.

"Why does Barack Obama at times admire Ronald Reagan? It's because he built a movement," self-proclaimed "offline guy" Hildebrand said on the panel "Organizing for Change: Obama Grassroots."

It was the first such panel for the Obama campaign, which has been eager to promote its online operation but less willing to offer up senior campaign people before public audiences to get into the offline details.

"Every state is a field state," said Hildebrand, who used the forum to announce "a three-day massive voter registration drive" over Labor Day weekend, following the Democratic National Convention in Denver.

Campaign new media director Joe Rospars, Ohio general election director Jeremy Bird and Georgia deputy field director Joy Cushman also took part as the panel discussed how the Obama machine put together the massive field organizations in Iowa, South Carolina and pre-Super Tuesday states that ultimately gave Obama his winning primary edge.

As the Obamas were considering his bid for the presidency, Hildebrand recalled, they stopped to consider what else they could do beyond what then seemed like a longshot bid against an well-established competitor, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who also would be able to rely upon a formidable financial operation.

Knowing that "running for the presidency is not the only thing that they could offer," they asked themselves, Hildebrand said, "How do we best make an impact to help people?"

Michelle, in particular, was not questing to become America's first African American first lady, he recalled. "One of her key points was, 'I'm not dying to do this. I'm not dying to be first lady. I'm not dying to be in the White House.' "

The Obamas' answer, he said, was to say to themselves, "Should we run but not be successful, it's very important we use the opportunity to run for the presidency to impact people's lives positively."

"Barack's point was, winning the presidency would be remarkable, but building a movement at the grass-roots to actually get an agenda passed would be worth anything and everything they would have to go through," said Hildebrand. And so Michelle Obama encouraged her husband to move forward.

The online campaign component was going to be critical, but it had to be married to offline efforts. "If our people on the Internet weren't also organizing on the ground, we weren't going to be as effective," said Hildebrand. "Barack had to be a different kind of candidate. He had to be authentic. If he ran and he ran as a traditional kind of candidate, he was not going to be successful. ... He had to take a different path."

One way was building support through huge, early rallies. "Those rallies were very important for optics," Hildebrand said, and also "for building a really serious online network."

One of those first major rallies was in Austin, leading to an online surge in support from Texans. And in June 2007, the campaign had done "a 50-state walk for change," which helped identify community leaders around the country who could be turned to again and again as the campaign progressed.

Four things, Hildebrand said, now make the Obama campaign unique going forward. In addition to the campaign's organizing work, there is "the seriousness and urgency of everyday Americans, people who have never been politically involved. ... They're angry. They're uptight. They're very nervous about their own future. ... Whatever their issue is, there's a ton of urgency."

Number two, Obama is "very inspirational to people." Three is that "we have volunteer resources that no one has ever seen before," and four is the campaign's considerable financial resources.

The goal, Hildebrand said, "is to use these four things and this opportunity to register millions and millions of new Democrats and progressive voters."

If the campaign succeeds in doing that, not only would Obama become president, but Washington would change, new members of Congress could win election, state legislatures could be flipped, and a new movement could be built that would likely last "the next 10 years."

"If we don't use this opportunity ... we're never going to have it as good as we do," Hildebrand said. "Why are we running a 50-state strategy? It's not just about getting Barack Obama elected, it's about getting a progressive majority in this country for decades to come."

By Web Politics Editor  |  July 19, 2008; 9:30 PM ET
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