Column: Let’s Party like it's 2009

Nathaniel Hundt

I remember Jan. 21, 2009, as an evening in which the most brittle cold was easily forgotten by the warmth of company at the Obama Staff Ball. That night, I huddled with my team of Colorado field organizers. We were still glowing after our delightful entry into politics. We clinked glasses to toast our victory and chewed on celery sticks garnished with generous dollops of creamy blue cheese until our leader, President Barack Obama, took the stage. He quickly quieted the thousand-strong audience and delivered a sobering thank you message that I have reflected on over the past decade.

“So many of you are at the start of your careers,” he said with admiration, peering through the cavernous D.C. Armory morass into the exuberant eyes of many millennials, including myself, who had just reached a triumphant zenith in their first jobs. “What’s most important is that you take the spirit, the culture of this campaign, and you keep applying it not just to campaigns.” We nodded violently.

“I may not be perfect, but you’ll set me right. And after I’m out of office, you’ll set the next person right,” he cajoled. Could he have guessed that the man who was gaining celebrity as the bamboozling huckster of opposition birtherism would be that next person? President Obama was already projecting his hopes and dreams for the next generation; his successor was busy dismissing apprentices.

In two years, over the course of the Herculean campaign that led us to that evening, I met many leaders. But none more essential to our culture than Iowa caucus chief Paul Tewes. He breathed President Obama’s community organizer-ethos into each of us. Tewes’ indefatigable belief in a politics of hope and his endless coaching to “respect, empower, and include” every voter in our process made us outward in focus. We extended ownership to our volunteers. Under his leadership, our nascent campaign became a vehicle for our collective hopes and dreams and, just as importantly, for something bigger than ourselves: our country.

Marshall Ganz has dubbed this a “snowflake model” of leadership, in which one’s sphere of influence is largest when one empowers others to organize and lead. If we successfully “trained the trainer,” we could move on to our next big challenge. The joke on the campaign was that the measure of success was your ability to “organize yourself out of a job.”

Over the past decade, as I’ve observed others and tried this leadership model out for myself, what I’ve found most understated is the importance of selecting the “next-in-lines”: the challenge of grooming the right successors with shared vision and values, while embracing stylistic and demographic diversity.

“We’ve assembled what I think will be an outstanding administration,” the president told us that night in 2009. Indeed, he won accolades for his appointment of a modern-day “team of rivals” cabinet, starring Secretary Clinton alongside other formerly vanquished foes from both sides of the aisle. But as Beowulf teaches us, the most important thing is to be remembered after your time has passed.

Although Obama rode an anti-establishment change wave into office, succession remained his primary tool for institutionalizing his vision and sustaining the movement. Succession was the mark of whether he could empower leaders that could inspire others in his wake, in elections in which his name would not be on the ballot. In her bid to become Obama’s successor, though she notably outpaced Donald Trump in votes nationwide, Clinton gathered seven million fewer votes than Obama won in 2008, received fewer votes in 42 individual states, and even in California, where I now live, she collected 16 percent fewer votes than Obama received just four years ago.

We must not overlook the fact that not one Obama cabinet official, out of nearly 40 who have rotated through the halls of federal bureaucracy, will have graduated into elected office or public service at any level — city, state or federal — come 2017. Republicans, meanwhile, will have swooped up majorities in 32 state legislatures, as well as 33 governorships, and the House and Senate.

To understand this sea change, it is useful to consider the challenge of succeeding at succession. In 2010, together with business historian Richard Tedlow, and at the directive of a then-frail Steve Jobs, I assembled curriculum for Apple’s leadership ranks to help them plan for the pivotal act and practice the delicate art of transitioning leadership.

We found some examples of success in the business world — notably in Southwest Airlines’ Herb Kelleher’s passing of the baton to longtime aides James Parker and Colleen Barrett. Parker and Barrett, while stylistically more toned-down than the gregarious Kelleher, were fastidious culture warriors who knew what had made Southwest different by design. Groomed for decades, they were publicly positioned for Kelleher’s loyal followers to see. If preliminary results are any indication, Jobs’ transition to Tim Cook and his subsequent stewardship of the still-intact “E Team” will go down as another exceptional success. However, we found many more examples of failure, of companies that lost their way after a singular, charismatic visionary departed.

In the political world, we have become so accustomed to the back and forth exchange of power — from Bush to Clinton, back to Bush, to Obama, and now over to Trump — between our modern political parties that prognosticators may now begin with the assumption that maintaining power after two terms in the White House is a long shot, regardless of the sitting president’s popularity or the job forecast.

But let these odds not excuse the Democrats’ defeat.

Paul Tewes taught us that the first thing effective leaders do is tell their story. If they don’t do that, someone else will tell it for them — and that usually doesn’t work out so well.

As a party, we now have an electoral choice: we can double down on our supposed demographic destiny and hope that Arizona, Texas, and Georgia move into our column in four years. Or we can fight for all Americans, including those who in live along our once blue, now purple, wall.

If it were up to me, I wouldn’t give up on the Big Ten states. But we need leaders who will march back into the northwest Iowa cornfields and down the shuttered sidewalks in Wayne County, Michigan, just as we need leaders who can traipse through sprays of condominiums in the shadow of the Las Vegas strip.

I knocked on about 500 doors in North Las Vegas in the week leading up to the 2016 election. In this round-the-clock “three shift city,” I met scores of Democratic voters who greeted me at their doors with tired eyes from a long night’s work. Their exhaustion, for me at least, was more broadly symbolic of an underlying yearning, a cry for more hope and change than was afforded them in the last eight years. If they were voting, it was a vote against Trump’s brand of bashing politics, more than an enthusiastic affirmation of the course the country was heading.

I also met three Democrats — Catherine Cortez Masto, Ruben Kihuen and Jacky Rosen — who Nevada voters just sent to Congress for the first time. Their personal narratives were uniquely American: two children of immigrants and a female engineer busting through glass ceilings. But together, what united them was a record of fighting for and delivering equity to the disenfranchised and forgotten.

Together, in order to win back governor mansions, of which there are 38 in play between 2017 and 2018, state legislatures, congressional chambers and, ultimately, the White House, we need to tell hopeful, personal stories of the type of positive change we’ll bring to working-class communities. These counties and coalitions brought congressional Democrats in 2006 and Obama in 2008 into power. Let’s not forget the proud Republicans who voted for their first Democrat after becoming disillusioned by W., or the union halls and VFWs in which we found our most passionate enthusiasts. Let’s also not take for granted our high school football captain-turned-precinct captains — these kids are in their late 20s now, many still living with their parents. “Sorry, the jobs aren’t coming back,” isn’t a message we, or anyone else, can believe in.

It is easy to look out at what appears to be a dearth of progressive crops in the political field and feel dismayed. But let us instead choose to view this as the beginning of our generation’s opportunity.

That night in January 2009, President Obama told us that what America needed was “active citizens like us who were willing to turn toward each other and say, ‘Let’s go do this. Let’s go change the world.’”

Let us seize the day and, this time, succeed at succession.

About the author

Nathaniel Hundt is a technology product manager at Workday, Inc., in Pleasanton, Calif. He began his career as a field organizer on the 2008 Barack Obama caucus campaign in Algona, Iowa, and later organized in Ohio, North Carolina and Colorado. He served in the U.S. Interior Department. Through the Workday Foundation, he spearheaded “Veterans Talent,” a project to close the skills gap for military veterans.