The Power of 'No!'

Paul Tewes is an experienced political organizer, best known for his 2008 direction of Obama's breakthrough effort in the Iowa caucuses.  Paul is a veteran of my 1993 Carleton College Washington program, and he met with me and my program students last winter during our time in DC. He left us with an enduring lesson that explains much about America's popular politics.

His lesson: It is much easier to organize people around a "no" than it is to organize them around a "yes." Opposition is a much more fruitful basis for political organization than is support. That may seem an unlikely lesson from an architect of the "yes, we can" Obama campaign. But explore further the motives of active Democrats in 2008. Their central drive involved rebuking and replacing eight years of the Bush/Cheney administration. That was the real wind beneath their wings. Obama provided a particularly attractive vehicle for delivering that rebuke. So, to complete the sentence: "Yes, we can...say NO to eight years of Bush and Cheney and replace them with better people."

Paul discovered this truth while recently trying to organize young people to address climate change. His focus groups found that many young Obama supporters felt they had already made their contribution to the cause in 2008 and now had other priorities. Climate change activism involves a "yes" to expending time and energy on very complex issue. So "no" activism in 2008 became "yes" apathy in 2010.

The rise of the Tea Party movement supports Paul's generalization. This is an emphatic "no" movement in response to the Obama agenda. In contrast, the Obama administration's effort to stimulate citizen activism for a "yes" through their Organizing for America has produced fewer recruits.

Presidents as they govern gradually build a "no" coalition in response to their actions in office. A vital test of their political success is the growth rate of that coalition. The larger it becomes, the more politically endangered is the president.

George W. Bush managed to create a large "no" coalition by the end of his second term. Barack Obama has created one at an unusually brisk pace in this first term. The blowback resulted from the large ambitions of these two presidents. Obama's immediate task is to stem the growth of his "no" coalition to prevent the loss of Congress in 2010 and the White House in 2012. Obama is now encountering the costs of audacity.