Is Obama’s presidency sparking renewed political activism? Both progressives and conservatives say yes

Jeff Blodgett

MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen
Wellstone Action’s Jeff Blodgett

Jeff Blodgett, the director of Barack Obama’s Minnesota presidential campaign, believes the Democrat’s election has created a new era of energy in the progressive movement.

He calls this renewed era of activism “the Obama bubble.” Blodgett is the executive director of the St. Paul-based Wellstone Action, a national center for training and leadership development in the progressive movement. The organization was founded to honor the memory of Paul and Sheila Wellstone following their deaths in 2002.

Morton Blackwell, however, has a very different view.

Blackwell, who in 1964 was the youngest Barry Goldwater delegate at the Republican National Convention and later worked in the Reagan White House, is the founder and director of The Leadership Institute, an Arlington, Va.,-based organization dedicated to organizing and training a new generation of conservative activists.

“It’s way too early to say if he [Obama] can capture a generation,” Blackwell said.

In fact, he believes that Obama’s success has created a new surge of energy among young conservatives.”He’s enraging people,” Blackwell said of Obama.

What follows are question-and-answer sessions with Blodgett and Blackwell, conducted in separate telephone interviews. First, Blodgett; then, Blackwell.

Q-A with Jeff Blodgett

MinnPost: Are you seeing an increase in excitement and participation in the progressive movement since the election of Obama?

Jeff Blodgett:  I think one of the big products of the campaign was a huge wave of people who got active for the first time in politics and the public arena. What I’m sensing is that there’s an eagerness to stay involved. We’re seeing an increase for demand for training. We’re filling up our training sessions very quickly. Many of the people signing up are out of the Obama campaign. They want to hone their skills and figure out how to stay active.

M.P.: You call the period we’re in the “Obama bubble.” How long can the bubble stay aloft?

J.B.: That’s hard to say. Right now, there’s tremendous good will. The opposition is bankrupt of ideas and ineffective, and people understand there are huge challenges and they’re eager to see him tackle them. He’s riding high. His support base is with him. We have to help him pass his agenda. You saw that effort over the weekend. [Organizing for America, which is a operation run by the Democratic National Committee, staged an event over the weekend in which volunteers went door-to-door, seeking “pledges” of support of the Obama budget proposal. According to Organizing for America, more than 10,000 volunteers participated in 1,200 events around the country and received 100,000 pledges of support.]

M.P.: None of those volunteers knocked on my door, and I live in an Obama-friendly neighborhood. Where were they?

JB: “I think this probably was done in a targeted way. I think the effort was focused mostly on swing districts, with the intention of persuading moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats to support the president. You might not have had people in your neighborhood, but perhaps there was activity targeted in Collin Peterson’s district or in Erik Paulsen’s.

M.P.: Is there something deeper to the political activity among progressives than the celebrity factor of Obama?

J.B.: I think there’s another phase that needs to kick in. It can’t be just about Obama and the presidency, but it also needs to be about getting involved and getting people elected at the state and local levels.

M.P.: Are there indications that will happen?

J.B.:  The Obama campaign did a survey of the 13 million people on its e-mail list; 600,000 filled it out. The survey was asking people about their interest after the election. Were they interested in running for office? Fifty thousand people said they were interested in running for office. A lot of people see the Obama campaign as just a start. That’s the next phase, branching out from the focus on the president and thinking of other ways to make political change. … That means running for things like the state legislature or the school board. Those are tough jobs. We need energized people who have their hearts and heads in the right places in those jobs. I get the sense that people are ready to step up and take challenges and that Obama has inspired people to think about the country in ways bigger than themselves. They want to know, “How can I give back?” I’m excited about that. That’s what our work is about, helping get people ready for the next phase. We want to keep change rolling in 2010. … When we run a Camp Wellstone program, it’s done on three tracks: one for people who want to run for office. There’s a second track for people who want to be campaign workers, and there’s a third track for people who want to be citizen activists.

M.P.: Is there something unique about the movement Obama has generated?

J.B.: Ideologies ebb and flow. This is a time the progressive political outlook is on the rise. Many have rejected the conservatism of the last eight years. But what is different about Obama is that he was an inspiration to people who are not ideological.  That’s a different kind of politics that has transcended the usual partisan stuff.

M.P.: Does Obama have staying power?

J.B.: No question he has staying power. Right now, there’s still that attitude “we’re so relieved he’s there.” People are comfortable with his style, and they’re excited about the possibilities. Of course, there are big battles to come, but there is no sense of any waning of intensity.

M.P.: Is Wellstone Action a factor outside of Minnesota?

J.B.: We’re in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Colorado, Washington state, New York City, North Carolina, New Mexico, Idaho. … We generally run about 10 Camp Wellstones a year. We’re now planning and fundraising to increase that capacity.

M.P.: Do young people know who Paul Wellstone was?

J.B.: Of course his name doesn’t mean the same thing to the new people getting involved as it does to the people who knew him. But in the last six years, we’ve developed an identity. People who don’t know who Paul was know what Wellstone Action is, and then we get to teach them something about Paul when they train. We use him as an inspiration, but we’re very forward looking in our work.

It’s an interesting thing. The fundamentals of the Obama campaign were started by Paul. It’s just that Obama used those fundamentals on steroids. He did it on a whole new level. All things get dated, but the interesting thing about Obama is that when it came down to it, his campaign was very good at the old-fashioned work of engaging voters one on one.

Morton Blackwell

Courtesy of the Leadership Institute
Morton Blackwell, Leadership Institute

Q-A with Morton Blackwell

MinnPost: Are you seeing a new energy among young conservatives in the wake of the election?

Morton Blackwell: Oh, sure. Last year was my 29th year as head of the Institute. In 2007, we set a record, training 6,787 in our programs. And in 2008, we trained 9,217, a 31 percent increase. That pace is being maintained this year. There’s an appetite for training among conservatives.

M.P.: How long can the “Obama bubble” stay aloft?

M.B.:  The polls show his popularity is already dropping to some extent. The administration has been chaotic. If this would have been a Republican administration and if there would have been as much chaos as we’ve seen, the media would have been all over it. There’s a limit to how much chaos will be tolerated. Already, some liberals are talking about the missteps.

M.P.: Can Obama be to this generation of young people what Ronald Reagan was to a 1980s generation?

M.B.: Obviously, that’s the hope of the left. Whether that turns out to be the case remains to be seen. It is as Zhoui En-lai (the first premier of the People’s Republic of China) said when he was asked, “What do you think of the French Revolution?” He said, “It’s too early to tell.”

M.P.: Obama seems to have excited so many of the young; is there excitement among young conservatives?

M.B.: Oh, certainly. Let me tell you a personal story. A few years ago, I was visiting my old hometown, Baton Rouge, driving my mother and nephew around. I had been working on my nephew since he was a child to get interested in politics, but without much success. We were driving and I was talking to my mother, but the radio was on. I reached up to turn down the radio and my nephew said, ‘Don’t turn that down, that’s Rush [Limbaugh]! I was thrilled. Young people are getting conservative messages in more places than ever before. A lot of the conservative principles come from where they’ve always come from, the family. And there are the clergy. Perhaps there are a few more conservative professors than there were before. A lot of conservative groups have worked hard on that.

It’s so much easier to get the message out now. Back when I was a Goldwater delegate in 1964, it was so different. In those days it was very difficult to get the message out. There were the three networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, and they weren’t exactly friendly. Now, you can build communities without those non-sympathetic filters. The web is politically neutral. Young conservatives are just as skilled online as people on the left. It’s much easier to communicate your message now.

M.P.: Is there something unique about the movement Obama has generated?

M.B.: I don’t think so. The obvious temptation when you have majorities in both houses of Congress and the White House is to overreach.  You’re seeing that already. Conservatives, and others, are already very concerned about what this administration has done. There are many, many conservative organizations out there ramping up activities. The perceived dangers of this administration encourage conservatives to become involved more than ever.

You know when Republican fundraising took one of its biggest dives? It was after Ronald Reagan was elected. Conservatives developed this attitude, “OK, now all’s right with the world.”  Now, the converse is true. If the economy doesn’t wipe out all the money, this era offers a big opportunity for conservative organizations to energize and grow.

M.P.: How will you try to expand your program?

M.B.: One of the things we do is a field program where we send out people to visit colleague campuses across the country. In the fall, we had 50 full-time staff people who visited everywhere in our campus leadership program. We started 2008 with 1,015 independent conservative organizations on campuses. By the end of the year, we had 1,245, that’s an increase of 20 percent. I intend by the end of this year we will have numbers higher than that.”

M.P.: Do you have activities on Minnesota campuses?

M.B.: We’re everywhere. In Minnesota, we have conservative organizations at Concordia, Gustavus Adolphus, Hamline, Mankato, Moorhead, St. Olaf, St. Cloud State, the University of Minnesota at Duluth. We have five different groups at the Twin Cities campus of the University of Minnesota. We’re at St. Thomas, Winona State. … Do you want me to keep going?”

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 03/26/2009 - 04:08 pm.

    Mr. Blackwell thinks that having control of both houses (not true as long as the Senate caves at every threat of a possible filibuster) might lead the Obama administration to “overreach?” Has he not paid attention as the Bush/Cheney group “reached” over the Constitution in many ways and over every obligation to protect us and the environment from corporate greed for eight long years?

    Obama has yet to show me he is willing to
    “overreach” in the other direction far enough to fix ALL the problems left behind, but he is certainly willing to try to get us out of the fiscal mess. Chaos? More like Conservative-Directed Chaos as right-wingers like Limbaugh and conservative members of Congress orate one after another about the danger we are in because of Obama’s deficits. The object is to make people doubt Obama and any recovery program he may put forth. (They do not mention Bush’s $5.2 billion addition to the national debt.)

  2. Submitted by Ginny Martin on 03/26/2009 - 05:33 pm.

    I didn’t read anything about the conservative “message.” What is it? All Black had were a bunch of numbers and an anecdote that isn’t representative of anything.
    I think this is par for the course for the Republicans.

  3. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 03/27/2009 - 09:22 pm.

    The most telling phrase in Blackwell’s account was his nephew saying, “Don’t turn (the radio) down–that’s Rush.” and Blackwell says, “I was thrilled.”

    Heaven help the Republican party and the country if Rush is their leader.

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