Speaking to tens of thousands of his supporters in Chicago's Grant Park, President-elect Barack Obama said his smashing victory was not about him but about "you." In his effort to unify, he meant all of America, but he also was crediting a very special group of people -- his "peacetime army" of millions of volunteers and contributors who grew the electorate and upended the electoral map in the name of change.
The key question now for Obama and all who support the change he called for is, "What happens to this peacetime army?" This powerful force was galvanized by Obama and his campaign. His Web site allowed any supporter to act immediately, and it reached millions with a flood of targeted e-mails and text messages. The campaign organized tens of thousands of events through which Americans reached out to other Americans. Many thousands of paid and volunteer organizers worked for months to register voters, identify supporters and get them to the polls. They travelled to battleground states to knock on doors and make their case for change in person. In many states, Obama's on-the-ground presence dwarfed that not only of the McCain campaign, but of the Democratic Party and virtually every other contemporary political institution and social movement in American society.
Ordinarily when a presidential campaign ends, organizers disperse and some of them join the administration, if the campaign has been successful. The list of donors and volunteers is often treated as a precious, proprietary political resource to be sold or loaned to allies. Obama's was no ordinary campaign, and that business-as-usual approach would be a mistake in this extraordinary year when so many want change.
While Governor Sarah Palin taunted Obama for being a "community organizer, whatever that is," Obama understands better than anyone who has been elected to the presidency that true political power and progress depend not only on presidential leadership, but on an engaged citizenry, and that elections are a crucial but only passing moment in the life of our democracy. To govern effectively and promote his agenda on economic security, energy, expanded health coverage, education, the restoration of civil liberties and other matters, Obama will need to keep his army mobilized. Doing this is as important as drafting legislation and picking cabinet secretaries.
Obama and all those who want to seize the moment for progressive change need these talented and passionate organizers who helped deliver the presidency to stay in the field and work with state and local organizations to deliver the change that Obama promised and they labored for. They would offer a huge boost to local coalitions and organizations, many of which are far less powerful and sophisticated than the Obama campaign.
These organizers are essential to sustaining the passion and engagement of millions of donors and online activists, who can take action in support of the agenda they share with Obama.
Progressives understand that this army needs to be a force for keeping the new administration true to its promises - supporting Obama when it agrees with him, pushing him when he needs to be bolder, and opposing him when they disagree. They did that this summer when thousands of Obama supporters used the campaign Web site to convey their dismay with his support for a Congressional compromise on government surveillance of U.S. citizens under the Foreign Intelligence Services Act. In the tough challenges ahead, this peacetime army can press Obama to stay true to his promises and his supporters.
Obama understands better than any other politician that the success of his agenda depends on his supporters being mobilized and engaged. What we have seen in the last year is a rebirth of participatory democracy, infused by the energy of millions. Imagine what this energy can do if it channeled into ongoing action.