obama poster bernie sanders
Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz
election 2020

Obama Lost His Grassroots Army. Will Bernie Keep His?

The next organizer-in-chief will need to avoid the mistakes of his Democratic predecessor.

The idea of a Bernie Sanders presidency no longer feels like a fantasy. With strong showings in Nevada, New Hampshire, and Iowa, those within the Sanders orbit have reportedly begun to map out his administration’s staffing and plans for his first 100 days should he actually win this thing in November. The multi-racial, working-class coalition that Sanders is building wears the tagline “not me, us,” demonstrating thus far that another type of politics is possible—one that is responsive to people, not corporations.


But beyond his campaign, a critical question remains: What would the movement presidency that Sanders has promised actually look like? And, more specifically, will Sanders be able to effectively translate the grassroots energy of his campaign into office?

Sanders is campaigning as an “organizer-in-chief.” The premise of his candidacy is that he will enact his policy agenda not through insidery deal-making or compromise with Republicans, but by bringing the force of movement politics into the halls of power. After decades of corporations whittling down labor’s power and big donors taking over American politics, it’s an immense undertaking. Mapping out how a Sanders administration would sit within a greater activist ecosystem is necessary—for grassroots groups who will need to feel empowered to hold a President Sanders accountable, but also for Sanders himself, if he wants any chance of enacting the agenda he’s promised.

While the prospect of an unabashed democratic socialist becoming the Democratic nominee represents a unique moment in U.S. political history, there is one clear precedent to draw on—that of former fellow organizer-in-chief, Barack Obama. Similar to Sanders, Obama campaigned on a promise to transcend and transform. His election was celebrated as a new era for politics too. And similar to a would-be President Sanders, Obama came into office with a grassroots army of supporters, ready to fight for change.


The opportunity to carry that sentiment into the White House and truly reimagine the presidency in the image of Sanders’ campaign is one that’s too precious to squander.

But he failed on these terms. By the time his eight years ended, Obama was widely criticized by activists for turning a movement campaign into a standard insider presidency. For many progressives, his most obvious sin was stuffing Organizing for America, or OFA, the enormous organizing apparatus that his campaign built in 2008, into the Democratic National Committee and under his own control. Organizers and activists who worked to get him elected soon found themselves at odds with a president who had promised to be receptive to their collective voice. Instead, Obama had filled his administration with consultants and political operatives.

Marshall Ganz, the legendary community organizer behind Obama’s 2008 grassroots model, later wrote an op-ed criticizing the former president’s handling of OFA. “The president demobilized the widest, deepest and most effective grass-roots organization ever built to support a Democratic president,” Ganz said.

Sanders is not Obama, differing both in politics and his agenda. In October, Sanders told The Intercept that he wouldn’t have stifled OFA in the same way that Obama had. “We need an ongoing grassroots movement of millions of people to pressure Congress,” Sanders said. But the challenges of figuring out how to build a sustainable post-campaign organizing group, and of activists to hold their executive accountable to those promises, remain the same.


The obstacles to enacting a Sanders policy agenda are immense, but all of the possible efforts—reforming Congress, restructuring the Supreme Court, removing money from politics, rebuilding the labor movement—will require, in some way or another, a robust mass movement to do things like oust conservatives, shift public opinion, organize general strikes, and pressure Congress.

Figuring out what went wrong under our last Democratic administration will help answer how Sanders and organizing groups do better this time around. For millions of newly mobilized people across the country, this may be the first time they’ve felt represented in politics; the first time that articulating the fucked-up way things are and asking for them to be better hasn’t been derided as idealism, but embraced as a possibility. The opportunity to carry that sentiment into the White House and truly reimagine the presidency in the image of Sanders’ campaign is one that’s too precious to squander. (The Sanders campaign did not make anyone available for comment for this piece.)

“In order to govern effectively, we not only have to get Bernie elected—we have to build the power to enable him and so forth to succeed. That means we have to own [an organizing movement],” Ganz told VICE. “That’s hard for a candidate to say, ‘Oh yeah, I get it.’ It’s a core problem.”

People don’t often run for president to share power. A central aspect of the disappointment activists later felt with Obama was around his transition from campaign to presidency. “Lots of people think that there wasn’t a very clear on-ramp for people from the Obama campaign to continue to be involved and make change,” Waleed Shahid, spokesperson for Justice Democrats, told VICE.


The story of OFA, which was supposed to be that administration’s on-ramp, has become something of a cautionary tale for those on the left. As Micah Sifry has reported extensively at The New Republic, some Obama advisers envisioned turning his campaign’s political machine into an independent force, capable of supporting Obama’s agenda, but also of pushing back at him when necessary. However, consultant insiders on his campaign, who feared enabling a power center outside of the president, fought instead to keep it bottled up within the DNC.

“We’ll be supporting him when it counts, but also pressuring when we need to.”

After Obama won the election, there was no plan in place to move his campaign organizing infrastructure onto a new platform, leaving volunteers confused. The administration lost precious time and momentum and eventually, the consultants got their way. As Sifry wrote, “It was the seminal mistake of his presidency—one that set the tone for the next eight years of dashed hopes, and helped pave the way for Donald Trump to harness the pent-up demand for change Obama had unleashed.”

At the beginning of Obama’s first term, activist groups held their fire, wary of criticizing the man they had just put in power. “In DC there were these tables on the environment, health care, immigration, and labor reform—they all sort of got intimidated and confused access with power,” Ganz said. According to Ganz, the campaign’s national chief of staff Jim Messina and the like were essentially going around telling people, “Hey, we got it.”


When activists, from DACA recipients to Occupy Wall Street, eventually began to push back against Obama, the administration’s attitude towards outside grassroots groups worsened. The president who had promised to bring change to the White House was the same one who ended up bailing out big banks, ramping up deportations, and authorizing a staggering number of drone strikes. Detached from the movements that elected him, by the summer of 2010, Obama’s press secretary was lashing out at the so-called “professional left” for criticizing the president.

If there’s one clear change from 2008, it’s that grassroots organizations will now be hyper-vigilant when it comes to any new Democratic president. “There’s a widely shared understanding that it was a mistake to stop exercising pressure from the outside on the president as we did when Obama came into office,” Ana Maria Archila, co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy Action, told VICE.

Which means that activists are ready to hold Sanders accountable to his promises. This week, we already saw an example of the necessity of this, after Sanders’ campaign walked back his promise of a blanket moratorium on deportations. As the Latinx and Chicanx organizing group Mijente tweeted in response, “We've said from the beginning that by endorsing Bernie Sanders we are not electing our savior, but our target.”

“We’ll be supporting him when it counts, but also pressuring when we need to,” said Olivia Katbi Smith, co-chair of the Portland chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. As one possible example of how, she suggested pushing Sanders to use his executive authority. Shahid, of Justice Democrats, pointed to other areas that Sanders might need to be mobilized on, such as reforming the Supreme Court and eliminating the filibuster. “That might be a big fight,” he said.


But organizers generally agree that Sanders has deeper ties to the movement than his would-be Democratic predecessor, and that he is likely to be more receptive to outside pressure. “Bernie Sanders is one of the most responsive politicians in America to social movements and his campaign is also made up of people with experience in the largest social movements in our country in the past fifteen years,” Shahid said.

“In a scenario where Sanders wins the general election, the day after he’s going to have millions of people who are ready and willing to walk through walls for him. That energy will start to dissipate if it’s not able to be harnessed in a clear direction.”

Activists saw some of this in Sanders’ response to Black Lives Matter protestors who challenged him in 2015. While initially the senator reacted defensively and dismissed protestors, he eventually released a comprehensive racial justice platform and sat down with activists. “I can say Bernie Sanders was very open to being pushed,” Johnetta Elzie, a leader in the Movement for Black Lives, said of the meeting at the time. Sanders seems more predisposed than Obama was to embrace organizers staking positions further to the left of him as a potential learning experience. It also stands to be a helpful tactic—giving politicians cover to demand more just, more utopian policies.

It should be noted that 2020 is not the same historical moment as 2008. When Obama transitioned from campaign to presidency, his administration, for better or for worse, was tied up in dealing with the financial crisis. He also had larger majorities in Congress than a president Sanders will likely inherit, which one could argue changed the strategic calculus of whether it was worthwhile to focus more on an inside or outside game.


Chris Hass, who worked on all versions of OFA during and after both campaigns, pointed out that in many senses, Obama and OFA did succeed on one major term that they set out on: passing the Affordable Care Act. But he acknowledged the problems the organization faced in transition. “A lot of decisions around OFA were made significantly after the election and that created downtime during which there was a lot of confusion amongst volunteers and amongst staff as to the future of the organization,” Hass said. “In a scenario where Sanders wins the general election, the day after he’s going to have millions of people who are ready and willing to walk through walls for him. That energy will start to dissipate if it’s not able to be harnessed in a clear direction.”

What a successful campaign-to-presidency grassroots organization would look like is yet to be determined. After the 2016 election, Sanders’ campaign spun off into Our Revolution, a group that has been plagued with internal turmoil. Politico reported in 2018 that despite possessing Sanders’ formidable email list, Our Revolution’s fundraising had dwindled and the group had “shown no ability to tip a major Democratic election in its favor.” The organization’s growing pains left “many Sanders supporters disillusioned, feeling that the group that was supposed to harness the senator's grass-roots movement is failing in its mission.”


Our Revolution’s trajectory hints at Sanders’ ability (or lack thereof) to manage the creation of sustainable post-election structures. Despite objections from Our Revolution staff, Sanders appointed his former campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, to run the organization. Weaver turned the group into a 501(c)(4), meaning it could collect large donations without disclosing its donors, and many top staffers quit in protest. In some ways, it was a mistake reminiscent of Obama—rewarding close campaign aides, at the cost of his political goals.

It’s a testament and a test; in a country transfixed by personality-driven election cycles, the question is whether the movement Sanders has inspired will be able to sustain itself far beyond his run.

One issue, though, may rest in leaning on a single organization to channel the energy of a nation-wide campaign at all. “A movement cannot be captured by one entity alone,” Archila, of Center for Popular Democracy Action, said. “What we’ve seen is that Sanders’ presidential campaign created a whole level of organizing that became many organizations.” Groups like Indivisible, the Sunrise Movement, and Justice Democrats have sprung up, both in reaction to Trump’s election and also because of the energy generated by the Sanders campaign.

It’s a testament and a test; in a country transfixed by personality-driven election cycles, the question is whether the movement Sanders has inspired will be able to sustain itself far beyond his run. As president, Sanders would have to act as a nexus of sorts for these organizations, without trying to exert control over them. And groups within the progressive ecosystem itself will have to ensure their own autonomy from any candidate or donor.


Many believe that Sanders’ main focus will also need to be on reforming and strengthening the Democratic Party itself. This type of party-building was something that Obama’s administration notoriously neglected, leading, in part, to Democrats in 2016 being at their weakest point on the state level since 1920.

"There’s a lot of possibility. It could be horrible or it could be wonderful.”

Larry Cohen, the chair of Our Revolution, emphasized this type of bottom-up party building as the type of work his group is focused on and the only way Sanders will have any hope of passing his agenda. “No matter who president is, if we don’t build a grassroots political revolution not only to change the country, but to build a party that functions as a party, we have no chance to accomplish things like Medicare for All.”

Along with other 2020 candidates, Sanders has already signed a pledge not to create a parallel organizing structure to the DNC and state parties. But if he works within the DNC, that will mean he needs to ensure that the party is beholden to the electorate, rather than lobbyists and consultants. “There is something called the Democratic Party, theoretically. It’s become more of a brand than a reality,” Ganz said. “There certainly is a need for some kind of national progressive movement that just isn’t so fragmented.”

Every person VICE spoke to for this story was realistic about the colossal challenges Sanders will face in enacting his agenda. The country’s governing structure makes it incredibly difficult to pass any legislation, the Supreme Court is conservative, and the Senate overrepresents whiter, redder states. If Sanders is elected, there’s a large chance that he’ll have to face majority leader Mitch McConnell. No one believes enacting change will be immediate, nor will it be easy. One of the major challenges will be to keep grassroots energy up, even if a Sanders administration faces losses after a major win.

But politics right now is a state of possibilities. Overhauling these structures, primarying incumbents, rebuilding labor, calling for general strikes—everything is on the table. It’s up to organizers and the Sanders campaign to turn these possibilities into realities.

In many ways, the smallest unit of organizing is a commitment from one person to another to make things better for each other; Sanders’ campaign has successfully replicated that for millions across the country. If Sanders wins, the real failure won’t be blocked attempts at change, it will be if Sanders and the movement don’t continue to uphold the commitments they’ve made to each other.

“This is a fast moment right now where so many things are in flux,” Ganz said. “That means that there’s a lot of possibility. It could be horrible or it could be wonderful.”