There’s a certain irony here.
The 20th century community organizer who used 21st century tools for his people-powered White House campaign now finds himself besieged by citizens airing their grievances at 19th century-inspired town hall style meetings.
Barack Obama’s top legislative goal hangs in the balance and his popularity is suffering as critics co-opt his tech-savvy organizing methods, tag him as a boogyman and disrupt local gatherings on his proposed health care overhaul.
Is the groundbreaking campaigner, whose White House political arm is aptly called Organizing for America, being outmaneuvered?
"That’s a fair summary of where things are at the moment," said Sanford Horwitt, a biographer of Saul Alinsky, the father of community organizing.
"The other side has the anger and the intensity, and Obama’s side doesn’t," Horwitt said. Harking back to the presidential campaign’s tactics and success, Horwitt said, "This really first-rate community organizing has not revealed itself in the first months he’s been in office, particularly when it comes to the health care issue."
The White House and its allies claim the protests are simply a fake grass-roots movement — "astroturfing" — but a USA Today/Gallup Poll this week found that most Americans believe the protesters’ sentiments are genuine.
Still, it’s far from clear how effective they’ll end up being. A majority in the same poll said they disapproved of some of the protesters’ tactics, such as shouting down Obama supporters.
Judging by the jeers and rants at Democratic lawmakers’ public forums this August, Obama appears to be facing a populist backlash from Americans who want no part of the wholesale change he promised as a candidate. The fierce opposition is threatening to further erode wider public support for his sweeping transformation of the nation’s medical system.
To sell his plan to a wary public, Obama is expending a ton of political capital and using a strategy that’s delivered results before — taking his pitch directly to the people during question-and-answer sessions in local communities. He is certain to face resistance Friday in Bozeman, Mont., where one group expects 500 protesters, and Saturday in Grand Junction, Colo., where demonstrators are all but certain to line the streets just as they did last month when he campaigned in North Carolina and Virginia.
So far, his audiences have been supportive and respectful, with Democratic allies in Congress bearing the brunt of outbursts as they defend his health care vision during what are commonly called "town hall" events.
The format is as old as the nation itself, derived from informal meetings routinely held in New England town squares by citizens looking to debate the issues of the day and settle local disputes. Today, few if any such events take place in actual town halls, and few issues get resolved. Rather, the events are held by politicians to make people feel their views are being heard.
Supporters and opponents alike use today’s modern technology to steer yesterday’s public forum in the direction they want.
Opposition to Obama’s health care overhaul is both organic and organized, not unlike the very effort he stitched together during his campaign for the presidency. Back then, he seized on the passion Americans had for change from Republican rule, using new Internet organizing tools to harness grass-roots energy and empower people who had never been active in politics to vote for him.
Since he’s been in office, he’s turned that campaign apparatus into a political organization whose top priority now is to drum up support for health care overhaul and encourage supporters to attend events on the issue.
But now critics, many of them conservatives, are turning the tables on him.
Frustrated by what they view as excessive spending and the growing reach of government during a recession, they are connecting over the Internet through social networking sites and protesting at health care events across the country. They are furious and have found a way to let it be known.
Conservative talk radio and television programs are fueling the fire. And, there’s an element of organized opposition: Lobbying groups like America’s Health Insurance Plans, Americans for Prosperity, and Conservatives for Patients’ Rights are encouraging people to get involved.
Much as Obama saw opportunity with the "change" catchword a year ago, the conservative movement, whose organizing roots date to the 1960s and Barry Goldwater, saw an opening in the Democrats’ community gatherings and are using them aggressively.
"What we saw in the presidential campaign was really a social movement to elect Barack Obama, with energy and urgency," said Marshall Ganz, a community organizing expert at Harvard University. "The right wing recognized that as a powerful threat to them. They saw how much appetite there was from people to engage. So around health care they’ve found a way to counter-mobilize."
Ganz cheered the notion of constituencies trying to out-organize one another. "The democratic tradition is one of contentiousness," he said. "It’s good for democracy to have it not just be a contest of TV commercials or slick messaging but to have people mobilize and get people engaged."
Obama, for his part, is publicly encouraging debate.
"If I hear only from people who agree with me, I’m going to actively ask some folks who are concerned about health care, give them a chance to ask their questions," Obama said Tuesday in Portsmouth, N.H.
None ended up being called on, but outside the event people decried a bigger government role in health care and lambasted the cost to taxpayers. Protesters held signs that included "Obama Lies, Grandma Dies" and referred to the president as a socialist.
Inside, Obama urged his supporters to engage in some old-fashioned, grass-roots politics.
Echoing his presidential campaign, he said: "I need your help, knocking on doors, talking to your neighbors, spread the facts. Let’s get this done."
Liz Sidoti has covered national politics for The Associated Press since 2003.