Obama's Legacy: His Army Of Campaign Volunteers Continues To Serve | KUOW News and Information

Obama's Legacy: His Army Of Campaign Volunteers Continues To Serve

Jan 5, 2017
Originally published on January 5, 2017 4:33 am

On a cold night in January nine years ago, Barack Obama won the Iowa caucuses. That first big step on the young senator's unlikely path to the White House was fueled by an army of campaign volunteers, which Obama later called one of his proudest legacies.

"That's what America needs right now," Obama told campaign workers a year later, after he was sworn in as president. "Active citizens like you, who are willing to turn towards each other, talk to people you've never met, and say, 'C'mon, let's go do this. Let's go change the world.' "

There was nothing glamorous about the work those volunteers did for Obama: A lot of knocking on doors and making phone calls. But for many veterans of that first Obama campaign, it's a time they'll never forget.

"I'll be friends with some of those people forever," says Nathan Blake, who quit his job at a Des Moines law firm to work for the upstart campaign. "We've got that shared experience that was super-meaningful and historic and important, and good for our country."

It wasn't obvious at the time that the man they were knocking on doors for eventually would make his way to the White House, but even in those early days, Blake was a "true believer."

He had plenty of company.

Brian Kirschling, who works at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Iowa City, was older than a lot of Obama campaign volunteers, and he'd never been politically active. But by 2007, Kirschling had decided it was time to roll up his sleeves — a decision he explains by quoting Dr. Seuss.

"His quote from The Lorax is, 'Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, noting is going to get better. It's not,'" Kirschling says.

Kirschling became a "precinct captain" for Obama. Children's books and a Disney video were key parts of his caucus night toolkit for attracting parents with young children.

"In the Iowa caucus," he says, "it's about how many people are standing in your corner. I can tell you everybody in that room that had kids was in our corner."

Aletheia Henry was just out of graduate school in 2007 when she heard a story on the radio about a training camp Obama was running for campaign volunteers. She packed her car and drove from Ohio to Chicago, listening to a tape of Obama's book, The Audacity of Hope, along the way.

"By the time I got there I was really hooked," Henry says.

She wound up working as a field organizer for Obama in eight different states.

"I would show up in a city and not know anyone," Henry recalls. But she'd be given the name of someone who'd volunteered to let her sleep on their couch. "And they'd have me over and have dinner and talk a little and they'd let me stay there for weeks or months at a time and we'd work together on this democracy."

After Obama was elected, campaign workers went their separate ways. Nathan Blake spent time in Washington, working for the Agriculture Department. He's now back in Iowa, doing consumer protection work for the attorney general.

Brian Kirschling, who'd never done much before in politics, decided to run for his local school board. And in a crowded field of nine candidates he made a point of knocking on doors all over the city.

"Which is exactly what I remembered learning with the Obama campaign," Kirschling says. "It was uncomfortable at times to go into parts of the district that don't necessarily agree with my opinion. But it allowed me the opportunity to stand on doorsteps or sometimes come into their house and have those conversations."

Aletheia Henry went on to run Obama's successful reelection campaign in Pennsylvania. In 2016, she was an adviser to Hillary Clinton's campaign there, which was not so successful.

"I think these next few years are going to take a lot of conversation," Henry says, recalling the motto of Obama's 2008 campaign: "Respect, Empower, Include."

"I come from rural Ohio," she says. "I understand some of the frustrations that Trump supporters are feeling. We should talk with everybody about how we can work together to make our country a little bit better."

Many of those who worked to elect Obama years ago are disappointed with the man who will follow him to the White House. But they're not giving up on the political process.

Brian Kirschling says while it's easy to be apathetic, the lesson he learned from the Obama campaign is that if you want to effect change, you have to be a part of it.

"I think it's pretty cool that a guy who was a community organizer ended up energizing and empowering people across the country to get involved and do things that they might not have done before," he says.

Kirschling suspects he's one of many people who were moved by Obama to try something different. Nathan Blake agrees. His social media feed is full of colleagues from the 2008 campaign who are still carrying on their mission — in politics, business, or non-profits, just as Obama predicted.

"It's not surprising that that was inspiring to a lot of us and that we responded in a way that said, 'Yeah, this is something I want to do with my life.' Figure out different ways, wherever I am, however I can do it, to continue being involved and live out this Obama legacy."

More than a library or foundation, Blake says, that's this president's lasting impact: an army of campaign veterans who continue to serve.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So on the night he was inaugurated eight years ago, President Obama celebrated with some of the army of volunteers who had worked on his unlikely campaign. He urged them to carry their upstart spirit forward into whatever they did next.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Because that's what America needs right now - active citizens like you who are willing to turn towards each other, talk to people you've never met and say, come on, let's go do this. Let's go change the world.

GREENE: Obama has called those fired up campaign workers one of his proudest legacies, and NPR's Scott Horsley recently caught up with some of them.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Nathan Blake says there was nothing glamorous about the work he did for Barack Obama all those years ago - a lot of knocking on doors, making phone calls - but it's a time in his life Blake will never forget.

NATHAN BLAKE: I'll be friends with some of those people forever. We've got a shared experience that was super meaningful and historic and important and good for our country.

HORSLEY: It was an obvious, Blake says, when he walked away from his Des Moines law firm that the man he was knocking doors for would eventually make it to the White House.

BLAKE: Certainly when I quit my job and joined the campaign, it was not at all clear that he was going to be even the nominee, let alone president.

HORSLEY: But even in those early days, Blake was a true believer, and he had a lot of company. Brian Kirschling, who works at a VA hospital in Iowa City, was older than a lot of volunteers, and he'd never been politically active. But by 2007, he decided it was time to roll up his sleeves, a decision Kirschling explains by quoting Dr. Seuss.

BRIAN KIRSCHLING: His quote from "The Lorax" is "unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing's going to get better. It's not."

HORSLEY: Kirschling became a precinct captain for Obama. Children's books and a Disney video were key parts of his toolkit on caucus night for attracting parents with young children.

KIRSCHLING: In the Iowa caucus, when it's about how many people are standing in your corner, I can tell you everybody in that room that had kids was in our corner (laughter).

HORSLEY: Aletheia Henry was just out of grad school in 2007 when she heard a story on the radio about a training camp Obama was running for campaign volunteers. She packed her car and drove from Ohio to Chicago listening to a tape of Obama's "Audacity of Hope" along the way.

ALETHEIA HENRY: By the time I got there after listening to the book I was really hooked.

HORSLEY: She wound up working as a field organizer for Obama in eight different states.

HENRY: I would show up in a city and not know anyone and get a name of a volunteer, and they'd say this person said you could sleep on their couch, and we'd work together on this democracy.

HORSLEY: After Obama was elected, campaign workers went their separate ways. Nathan Blake spent some time in Washington working for the Agriculture Department. He's now back in Iowa doing consumer protection work for the attorney general. Brian Kirschling, who'd never done much before in politics, decided to run for his local school board. And in a crowded field of nine candidates, he made a point of knocking doors all over the city.

KIRSCHLING: Which is exactly what I remember learning with the Obama campaign. It was uncomfortable at times to go into parts of the district that don't necessarily agree with my opinion, but it allowed me the opportunity to stand on people's doorstep or sometimes come into their house and have those conversations.

HORSLEY: Aletheia Henry went on to run Obama's successful re-election campaign in Pennsylvania. And this year, she was an adviser to Hillary Clinton's campaign there, which was not so successful. Like a number of Obama veterans, she recalls their 2008 motto - respect, empower, include. She thinks that's a useful lesson for Democrats going forward.

HENRY: I think these next few years are going to take a lot of conversation. I come from rural Ohio. I understand some of the frustration that Trump supporters are feeling. We should talk with everybody about how we can work together to make our country a little bit better.

HORSLEY: Many of those who worked to elect Obama eight years ago are disappointed with the man who will follow him to the White House, but they're not giving up on the political process. Brian Kirschling says it's easy to be apathetic, but the lesson he learned from the Obama campaign is if you want to effect change, be part of it.

KIRSCHLING: I think it's pretty cool that a guy who was a community organizer ended up energizing and empowering people across the country to get involved and do things that they might not have done before.

HORSLEY: Kirschling suspects he's one of many people who were moved by Obama to try something different. Nathan Blake agrees, his social media feed is filled by colleagues from the '08 campaign who are still carrying on their mission in politics, business or nonprofits, just as Obama predicted.

BLAKE: It's not surprising that that was inspiring to a lot of us and that we responded in a way that said, yeah, this is something I want to do with my life to continue being involved and kind of live out this Obama legacy.

HORSLEY: Blake says more than a library or foundation, that's this president's lasting impact - an army of campaign veterans who continue to serve. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEN PRUNTY SONG, "ICE + GLASS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.