Alumni of the Obama White House spent days mourning Trump’s win. Now they’re ready to fight.
President Barack Obama told his most loyal operatives that they have 10 days to get over their grief.
They’re already ahead of schedule.
One attendee called the meetings “Obama Anonymous,” and while they largely started as impromptu commiseration, they’ve shifted to mobilization. It’s an early sign that Obama can continue to command a formidable movement and potentially launch a serious defense of his legacy as a private citizen.
Election night felt like “a nightmare I couldn’t wake up from” said Liz Jaff, a veteran of Obama’s 2008 campaign and White House. “I went from hating everybody to hating myself for not really realizing what was happening.”
Then Jaff, now at CrowdPac, had about 15 people over to her apartment in Columbia Heights on Sunday, and she started to feel better about Trump.
“The tipping point was when we started talking about how we could kick his ass, and that we could,” Jaff said. “You realize everybody wants to fight and you suddenly get hundreds of messages coming in from volunteers who you’ve worked with before.”
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. There’d be a wave election to sweep away Trump’s divisive rhetoric and Republican obstruction all at once. The people who have spent the last decade sweating it out for Obama – in many cases most of their adult lives – could finally lead normal lives, his legacy safely in the hands of the first woman president.
Instead, said former Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt, “This is going to be a struggle over time, and not just an easy handoff to a different team.”
Obama himself acknowledged that the shock made the loss even harder to take during a call this week with Organizing for Action, his campaign apparatus turned grassroots mobilizing group.
“It is fine for everybody to feel stressed, sad, discouraged for a while,” Obama said, “but I’m giving you like a week and a half to get over it.” By Thanksgiving, he added, “You’re going to have to be in a more positive place,” if only to deal with arguments around the dinner table.
They’re gearing up for a lot more than that, and in many cases seriously rethinking their life plans.
“Not going to lie, I want to get out of politics,” Andy Oare wrote on Facebook Monday. He worked on both Obama campaigns and in the administration and before landing at the Glover Park Group, a Washington-based strategy firm. “I thought an HRC victory would allow me the peace of mind to ride off into the sunset, and focus on a more personal and family-focused future.”
Earlier that day, Oare wrote, his wife had brought home two copies of the Constitution, and it hit him: “The last seven days imposed a seismic shift in what my life looks like over the next four years.”
That means keeping up the busy pace, Oare said in an interview, juggling a new round of activism with his day job.
The talks are all early, but a few broad themes have emerged. One is protecting the people most targeted by Trump’s policies and rhetoric. How to block a deportation force, for example? Could Vice President Joe Biden leads an anti-domestic violence campaign? Then there are the Obama policies that are most at-risk: the health law, his climate regulation. Finally, with Democratic ranks decimated not only at the federal level, but in statehouses as well, there’s a significant new emphasis on supporting alumni who are considering running for office.
Over the past 10 years, Obama alumni have spread throughout the government, the advocacy world, and influential parts of the private sector, including at Google and Facebook. That means there’s a lot diverse talent to harness.
“Not everybody on this list is going to run a state senate race,” said LaBolt, now a president of the Incite Agency and a partner at Bully Pulpit Interactive. “Whether people are keeping their day jobs or not, they’re setting aside time to be engaged.”
It’s not clear where the focus will ultimately settle, and Labolt predicted that no one single group will emerge from the effort. The consensus seems to be building around filling in the gaps in existing Democratic infrastructure, rather than creating a whole new universe.
Even before the election, Obama had already been planning to devote some of his post-White House attention on one big Democratic disadvantage: a new redistricting campaign with former Attorney General Eric Holder called the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.
Other ideas are emerging, many still in the brainstorming stage. At one gathering on Tuesday night in a Washington living room, about a dozen current and former Obama appointees discussed creating an “action tank” – like a think tank, but more ground game than Ivy Tower – with the working title “Center for a New American Response.” According to notes from one attendee, they also kicked around the idea of an equivalent of the PeaceCorps or Teach for America to plant service-oriented progressives in the rural areas Trump won, and a toolkit to help a new generation run for local office without waiting for an open seat or working through crusty party committees.
Obama’s network, its members say, holds so much potential because they still feel bound by his stirring message of hope and change.
The people who worked on Obama’s campaigns and in his White House frequently refer to the group as family. They stay in touch through a variety of networks: Facebook and LinkedIn are just two. There are also Obama alumni association chapters around the country — New York’s met at The Winslow in the East Village on Tuesday to plan and heal. There’s the 3,000-member White House Internship Alumni Network, and something of a master (though hardly comprehensive) Obama Alumni List, used largely to plan happy hours.
“The lists are now going to become extremely important,” Jaff said.
“In a weird way we’re having these sort of deep conversations with each other, and it’s good to reconnect in that manner,” Oare said. “I wish we didn’t have to do it under these kind of circumstances. But I guess it’s a silver lining that a lot of these relationships are being reaffirmed.”