August was a rough month for President Barack Obama and his health insurance reform agenda. Like 2007, when few thought Obama could become president, much of America began to doubt his ability to enact health insurance reform. For a month, the media has focused on the cacophony of tea baggers, birthers, and truthers across the country, ignoring the millions of Americans quietly organizing and working in support of Obama and his health insurance reform agenda -- much like the media ignored those quietly organizing Iowa two years ago.
This week, Obama is back on his game. Monday, Obama gave a rousing speech in Cincinnati at the AFL-CIO Labor Day Picnic. He broadcast an inspiring speech on Tuesday to our nation's schoolchildren. Tonight, Obama will deliver a historic address to Congress laying out his plans for health insurance reform.
Like the run-up to the 2007 primary campaigns, the growth of the Obama organization went almost without notice in the run-up to the 2009 health care battles. The low-key style of grassroots, community organizing by Obama for America in 2007 and Organizing for America in 2009 does not lend itself to big media stories. But in 2007, this organization of ordinary people triumphed over the bigger names (Hillary) and bigger stories (Hillary) of the media.
Throughout 2007, few believed Obama could become the president of the United States. He was not taken seriously by the media or his fellow candidates until he won the Iowa caucus. Suddenly, Obama garnered a wave of support across the country. Supporters were fired up. They believed it was possible.
Then, when the results were announced in New Hampshire, Obama's newfound supporters wavered. In the moments before his famous New Hampshire "Yes We Can" speech, the murmur across America said, "No, he can't."
Throughout August 2009, Obama and his supporters have been stuck in the New-Hampshire-results moment. Throughout the month-long Congressional recess, America has been bombarded with images of angry health insurance reform opponents screaming into our televisions. Once again, the murmur across America was one of doubt, "No, he can't."
Like 2007, though, the media firestorm may not be an indicator of who will win the health insurance reform battles. The quiet, uneventful organization of tens of thousands of ordinary Americans has been happening right under the media's noses, almost without notice.
It was the night of the New Hampshire primary, when hopes were dashed, that Obama gave one of his most inspirational speeches. When Obama made America believe he could win. When he said, "When we have faced down impossible odds. When we've been told we're not ready, or that we shouldn't try. Or that we can't. Generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of our people. Yes we can. Yes we can. Yes we can."
Organizing for America (OFA) is the lifelong dream of Obama. It is his 50 state strategy come to life -- not for one election but for a generation of advocacy. OFA began slowly. The organization was gutted and lay dormant between Election Day (November 4, 2008) and inauguration (January 20, 2009). Finally, it began with two staffers: Mitch Stewart, National Director, and Jeremy Bird, Deputy National Director.
Just two people to recruit and train staff for all 50 states. Each state started with a month-long Listening Tour in which newly hired staff members traveled the state just listening to the needs and wants of activists and supporters across the state. Then, the newly hired, travel-weary staff put together a customized organizing plan for their state. For every OFA staffer I've talked with, it has been a long, difficult process.
The ramp up of OFA went almost without notice in the media. Last week, touring Ohio and Pennsylvania as an embedded reporter on Organizing for America's Health Insurance Reform Now: Let's Get It Done bus tour, I asked my readers to send questions for the leadership of Organizing for America. Almost every email asked the same question, "Why am I only hearing people yelling and screaming against the president? Why isn't Organizing for America doing more to fight for what we voted for on November 4, 2008?"
More than 12,000 people turned out for the Health Insurance Reform Now: Let's Get It Done bus tour events. When I asked "What brings you out today?" the answer was almost always a variation of, 'I am tired of the yelling and screaming on my television set.' Attendee after attendee said they wanted to add a voice of reason to the din.
OFA has been only in the backs of the minds of the media. But while the cameras were trained on a handful of tea baggers, birthers, and truthers screaming from parking lots across America in August, OFA held thousands of events, made tens of thousands of phone calls, and knocked on thousands of doors in all 50 states. The bus tour is continuing on, in Atlanta today, then through red states like Texas and swing states like Nevada.
I don't know what the president will say tonight. In moments like these, moments like New Hampshire, when the world doubted his ability to make things happen, he has been bold. Tonight, I believe the president will channel his New Hampshire yes-we-can moment and remind America of what he said then, "Nothing can stand in the way of the power of the voices of millions of voices calling for change. We have been told we cannot do this by a chorus of cynics. They will only grow louder and more dissonant in the months and weeks to come. We've been asked to pause for a reality check. We've been warned against offering people 'false hope' .... The reason we began this improbable journey is because it's not just about what I will do as President. It is also about what you, the people who love this country, the citizens of the United States of America, can do to change it."