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.