The Obama Orphans: Lost in Transition
When President Obama took over the White House, thousands of campaign workers-who had abandoned the stability of education, careers, and even marriage to work for him-found themselves jobless. We spoke with a few of them.Politically, the timing of the economic crash was perfect. For the campaign staff, it couldn't have been worse. Wandering a desolate economic landscape, many moved in with parents for the first time in a decade. A few were appointed to positions in the administration. Some got jobs in the White House. The others shared breakfast cereal with mom and dad and wondered if uncertainty elsewhere was better than the stale safety of home.They had quit jobs, left colleges and grad schools, and ended relationships for something larger than themselves. At its peak, the campaign employed roughly 6,000 full-time workers. It seduced them with its patriotic promise, and the innocent were drawn out of the usual apathy and into what seemed an absolute purpose. With the movement now behind them, with sleeping bags and laptops and a decent shirt and pair of shoes, they drove to Washington, D.C., hopeful that Barack Obama might again give them something to do.It's been seven months since the Obama for America campaign, a largely grassroots movement that gained in size and speed and power everyday for 635 days until it was the largest voter mobilization effort in the history of mankind, ended. In the nation's capitol today, thousands who worked so hard to get Barack Obama his job are still waiting for another missionOn a recent Friday night in Washington, D.C., a group of former campaign staff gathered in a Dupont Circle bar. They are members of a Facebook group called "Obama Campaign-Fam in DC-now." Reunited in uncertainty, they drink. Bonding with a shared loss of purpose, they commiserate."A bunch of people were getting hired by the White House and then it just stopped," one girl says, snapping her fingers."How can they be so backed up right now?""I don't know. It's ridiculous, and if I can't get in, then f--- it."They complain about some of the people who are getting jobs, people who then announce parties on Facebook with titles like "I-Just-Got-Hired-By-The-Administration-And-Want-To-Celebrate Party.""That's a party I'm not going to."But most of the talk trends positive and all of it, some way or another, comes back to the President they worked so hard to elect."I was born outside Chicago, so I have that in common with Obama," a former organizer named Jeff says. He pauses briefly and continues, "-even though he was born in Hawaii."A former field organizer, whom I'll call Joshua, tells me about the time he was confronted at a South Dakota diner. "They told me that I was wasting my time with Obama because Hillary Clinton would be the Democratic nominee and the next president." He told those diner patrons why he believed in Obama. "He wasn't like other politicians and he led a different kind of campaign and people believed that, they really believed that, and then the way he spoke about the war and about-well, you know what happened," he says, catching himself in the excitement of retelling the story everyone around him knew.Joshua's political career began as a volunteer. He knocked on doors and enjoyed talking to strangers about what they believed and what he believed and why he believed the things he believed. He has a big friendly face and honest blue eyes and a 1950s-era crew cut, and when he showed up to volunteer for the Obama campaign he was offered a job as a volunteer organizer.
Joshua was hired as a field officer for the campaign. Now, after happy hour, he walks to his car, a 1999 Toyota that he had driven from Ohio and which, for the past two months, has been his home."I remember saying, ‘You mean I get paid to do the same thing I'm doing now?'"He organized for Obama in New Hampshire and in Ohio, where he stayed after the March 4 primary to care for his ailing grandfather. "Most of my life I knew [my grandfather] was a racist, but he knew Obama was his candidate." The man never did vote. "I had been harassing him to go vote early and on that day I shook him and knew instantly that he was dead."Joshua hands me a business card. Under his name, a title: "Energetic Field Organizer for President Obama." The card lists his political work-Volunteer Recruiter, Special Event Organizer, Call Center Supervisor-and in the lower left hand corner, underneath the cell phone number, in bold font, it reads, Hire Me.After his happy hour beer, this genial young man dressed in a blue button-down shirt and his late grandfather's cashmere wool overcoat took the D.C. Metro south, back to the northern Virginia suburbs. Joshua walked to his car, a 1999 Toyota 4-Runner that he had driven from Ohio and which, for the past two months, has been his home.Two days after the election, The Onion posted a video: "Obama Win Causes Obsessive Supporters To Realize How Empty Their Lives Are." It's the day after the big win and Obama supporters have turned into zombies "unable to process non-Obama related information." The anchor asks what will happen to them. "You know, Andrea, I think a lot of people are just hoping these people will die."To spoof these people is too easy; a Manchurian army of organizers lying dormant until a certain word uttered by their leader-"arugula" maybe-calls them to action. The reality is close: thousands of competent, idle young people desperate to work for something they believe in again.The days immediately following Barack Obama's victory were intensely strange for these people. After the steady crescendo of anxiety and passion that climaxed on election night in a sort of national orgasm, the full-staff was left particularly limp. Returning to society was, after the manic frenzy that defined their campaign lives, a steep downer. And since the economic crisis, the financial meltdown, the Great Recession or whatever we eventually term the winter's bad news, it became clear to them that life's simple solutions, as they were, had run dry.Joshua, however, has found some redemption. For $35 a month, he joined a health club where in the early mornings he exercises, showers, and gets dressed. The spartan schedule, along with a supermarket-salad-bar diet, helped him lose more than 25 pounds.Six weeks into this life, Joshua's moods were justifiably conflicted. When his father visited (his parents did not know where their son was sleeping), Joshua sent me a text message: "It's nice hangin w dad cause I can eat 3 times a day…god I hate being poor. Oddly, I've never been happier in my life."Joshua doesn't need to explain himself to the people he meets in D.C. And other homeless people, toward whom he feels a mixture of kinship and disdain, have elicited his only confessions."A homeless guy came up to me and asked for a dollar." Joshua was on a job hunt and wore a suit. "I said, ‘Dude, I'm homeless, too,' and I was incensed by it. Why do I have to look like you to be homeless?"As Obama workers go, Ben Thomas isn't much of an idealist. He wore a white button-down shirt and a thin black tie for a quick workday burger and beer at the Tune Inn, a greasy spoon just east of the Capitol. He is from Boise, Idaho, and whether from growing up progressive in that most conservative Western state, or just natural countenance, Thomas stays grounded. On inauguration night, he attended the Staff Ball at the 10,000-seat D.C. Armory."I was looking at 4,000-plus people, all dressed to the nines and chasing after the same job. These are people with exactly your demographic description and exactly the same experience as you. I'm not great at math, but we always knew there were more people than jobs."As the economy slid, applications soared. By early January, the Obama transition had received over 350,000 resumes for about four thousand jobs.Raquel Gonzalez found work at a Starbucks in Chinatown and at L'Occitane, the French cosmetics shop, in Union Station. At 9:30 p.m. on a Thursday night, Raquel is shutting down after another recession-slow day at the up-market chain beauty store. She wears a black stone pendant etched with the campaign's "O" logo. The stone is from Lake Michigan and Raquel thinks back to Indiana, about sleeping three hours a night under a folding table in a campaign office. From behind the cash register, she looked out on the station concourse, past the bottles of White Tea Shower Mousse and Relaxing Geranium Pillow Mist, at the dark-suited commuters rolling their black commuter bags across buffed marble tiles."I miss it. It's tough to go from such a heightened state where you're busy, busy, busy, and you have a sense of purpose to this," she paused, "disconnect."
The closest thing to the next big thing looks like Organizing for America. People like talking about OFA because no one seems to know exactly what it is.William James, inAs one former staffer puts it, "in D.C., lists are power and we have the biggest list,"; i.e., the approximately 13 million people who signed onto the campaign. The Democratic establishment was "intimidated by the Obama movement," the staffer says, "and was saying things like, ‘What are you building, the Obama Party?'" Eventually the campaign acquiesced and folded itself into the Democratic National Committee, or the other way round, depending on your perspective.Most former staff at this point recognizes that OFA and the DNC are gears in the same machine. And as it takes on a more ostensibly partisan agenda-in March, mass e-mails called on volunteers to help elect Scott Murphy, the Democratic candidate in New York's 20th congressional district-OFA is raising some grassroots hackles. A blogger's comment on the DNC website summed up the tension neatly: "I want change that extends beyond the Democratic National Committee…I did not support or vote for Democratic candidates, I voted for President Obama."To the formerly electrified, an endless partisan campaign doesn't sound all that electric. It sounds like the old politics. Still, most former staffers express a wary patience towards OFA. We could do worse, they say, than to stir up broad support for the President's agenda.Raquel Gonzalez moved into a new place near the convention center with a campaign friend. They announced a house-warming party on Facebook and took in a diverse crowd. The girls baked a cake. Younger staffers took Jello-shots in the kitchen's fluorescent light.A few of the older ones talked amid piles of black coats and gray hats in a quiet room upstairs. A new guy named Paul says he was in D.C. "waiting and hoping and temping." Joshua found a job waiting tables at the Cheesecake Factory. He moved into a room in a house in Arlington and made rent, just barely. He likes the people he works with there, but the job is just a job. "I'm not inspired to work at the Cheesecake Factory for the rest of my life."The kids who worked the political story of a generation danced that night on cream-colored carpeting in the small den of a new apartment with a red door. "Baby Got Back" pumped from black speakers, and a few were loose enough to do the "Macarena."Out on the stoop, they smoked cigarettes and told November's stories."It was Election Night in Ohio and it was all over," a confident young woman says between assertive drags on a Parliament. She was driving a clown car of hysterical staff and volunteers from Cleveland to Columbus. They were dirty and delirious and she was doing 105 when she saw the state trooper's flashing lights.She recalled the moment with a mischievous grin, aware of her guilt and more than a little proud.I'm sorry I was going so fast, officer, she said. We worked on the Obama campaign and we're on our way to the capital. Well, he said, you need to slow down first and be careful. Yes, officer. Well alright then, he said, go on. Original photos by flickr user (cc) Pargon.