Don’t get me wrong. All of this love among top Democrats this early in the election season is good — but it’s not going to be enough to defeat Trump and his machine. I was Barack Obama’s traveling press secretary in 2008 and the White House communications director in 2016 and, believe me, I have seen up close what a long and bitter election — from primary to general — looks like.
At this point in the 2008 primary race, I would not have been surprised if I had found a bunch of Hillary Clinton voodoo dolls scattered around the Obama campaign headquarters. And, according to my friends who worked on the Clinton campaign that year, the feeling was mutual. Don’t forget, Hillary Clinton didn’t endorse Obama until June 7, and she didn’t appear with him at a unity event until the end of that month.
By the time Bernie Sanders rolled up to a meeting with then-President Obama in 2016, 15 minutes late with a scone from a local coffee shop in his hand, to discuss endorsing Hillary Clinton, it was already June.
This primary season could have too easily played out as a long, drawn-out battle to a floor fight at the convention. The fact that it didn’t is good for Democrats.
Sanders’ endorsement of Joe Biden earlier this month matters because it is months ahead of recent past precedent, and it begins to focus the fundraising energy, the online organizing, the staff and volunteers on one shared goal: Defeating Donald Trump.
It does not mean that every Sanders supporter will support Biden. But it has never worked that way; her endorsement of Obama didn’t mean that every Hillary Clinton supporter would support him. Long, before there were Bernie bros, there were PUMAs (Party Unity My A**). According to a YouGov survey, only 12% of Sanders supporters voted for Donald Trump in 2016, while 24% of Clinton supporters voted for John McCain in 2008. Obama still won.
And though the Obama endorsement of his former Vice President was not exactly a surprise given he was the only candidate left in the race, it hopefully calmed the hand-wringing of many Democrats who were waiting for President Obama to come out of hiding. Unlike when then-President Obama gave an unintentional hint way too early in the process of his support for Hillary Clinton back in 2016, this was done in a way that should not leave a bad aftertaste in the mouths of any candidate’s supporters.
For a moment last week, the 12-minute video made it feel like everything was going to be okay. I get it, I worked for Obama on-and-off for 10 years. I came back twice after leaving because I knew in my gut he was a once-in-a-lifetime figure.
But President Obama’s engagement alone — even if he does a rally (virtual if needed) every single day in the fall encouraging people not to boo, but to vote — won’t win the election.
If it were possible to transfer the love and support from one public figure to another, Beyoncé and Michelle Obama (and Katy Perry and Bruce Springsteen and Madonna and... the list goes on) would have made Hillary Clinton our president.
It doesn’t work that way. Every election is about a moment in time. It’s about a choice between the options. And it’s about getting more people to vote for your candidate (putting aside for a moment the broken system of the Electoral College).
This is admittedly a tough time to call for activism. From the number of small businesses that are closing down, to the layoffs from bigger companies, to figuring out homeschooling, to fretting about the health of loved ones and neighbors, to the uncertainty around when things actually get back to normal, people have obligations and worries that are far bigger and more personal than whether Joe Biden can convince Bernie Sanders supporters to vote for him..
And for many people, now just may not be the time for activism. That’s okay.
But for those of you who are wondering how it is even possible to be active these days, for people complaining of boredom on Twitter, who are sick of Netflix, creative kids crafts on Pinterest, Zoom happy hours with friends, and developing new hobbies you never thought you needed — we need you.
It’s clear that coronavirus is not stopping Donald Trump’s supporters. Beyond the daily press briefing — which is either a sick rallying cry for his base and factions of the right wing, or hours of unhinged fodder for the Biden team, depending on how you look at it — for months, his supporters have been organizing. And it’s not just the base, it’s also African Americans for Trump, Women for Trump, Latinos for Trump — all energizing one another. The digital first President and his online army are built for this moment.
We need to find a way to build our own cavalry. My mother still uses a phrase when something feels overwhelming: “Eat the elephant one bite at a time.” It feels like a saying made for this time. No one is saying, leave your children to homeschool themselves, leave a steady job during these uncertain times, and just join a campaign.
What I am saying is, spend 15 minutes a week making phone calls or as a digital organizer. If you care about the presidential race, go to Joe Biden’s website and sign up to volunteer. Believe me, they will take the spare 15 minutes of your time every week if that’s what you have to offer.
Or, if you are more excited about a local race, contact them through Twitter or Facebook or their website, or call the campaign office. They will be forwarding the calls or outreach to organizers who will get back in touch andhelp figure out how you can be active.
If you can donate $5, then donate $5. And if you can’t, don’t feel that’s the bar to being engaged this year.
You also don’t have to wait for the Biden campaign or any campaign to tell you what to do. Keep it simple.
There are tons of resources out there to help figure out how to get engaged. You can fill in your zip code on swingleft.org and it will give you a range of options. I was given the option of phone banking for mail-in voting in Georgia, writing to voters, or donating. Or check out indivisible.org and sign up to send letters using their user-friendly template. If you care about abortion rights, volunteer for Planned Parenthood; protecting your kids from gun violence, offer help to Moms Demand Action.
And you don’t need formal talking points or instructions. The most impactful organizing is also done with a personal touch by people who are reaching out to people they know. Just ask the campaigns that did this the most effectively during the primary from Elizabeth Warren to Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg. Empower yourself to make a difference.
Start with this question: Why do you think Donald Trump needs to be defeated? Take that issue and tell 20 friends on your favorite social media platform why you think Donald Trump needs to be defeated. There are plenty to pick from.
Follow up with the people you reached out to. Keep track with your friends. Make your own regular check ins with a group to report in your progress of reaching out to friends, family and neighbors.
Spend 15 minutes a week reaching out. If you like it, spend 30 minutes a week or an hour. Every little bit counts.
Barack Obama used to quote an old saying from the Hopi people (and, indirectly, Maria Shriver): “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”
And this year is no different. Barack Obama can’t save us. Neither can Bernie Sanders. We have to save ourselves.