On January 20 Barack Obama will become the 44th president of the United States in an historic inauguration on the steps of the Capitol. Still, to this day, months after this unprecedented campaign, Armenia’s for Obama (A4O) provokes excitement in those who were part of this influential grassroots movement and anticipation in those who followed the campaign with great expectations for a brighter tomorrow.
With the transition process in full swing and nearly all of the cabinet selections announced, there are both signs of concern and hope for the many volunteers that helped make A4O a cross-country, grassroots campaign in support of the candidate that ran on a theme of change.
With the retention of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the nomination of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, and news that genocide scholar Samantha Power is back on the inside of Team Obama and tapped to join the State Department’s Agency Review Team, some degree of uncertainty lies ahead for issues of concern to Armenian Americans including building stronger US-Armenia ties as well as securing a just affirmation of the Armenian Genocide.
But the path ahead will be dictated, in large part, by the efforts of thousands of Armenian Americans who not only marched to the polls on November 4th, but worked relentlessly in communities across the country in the months leading up to that decisive day.
Taking a Chance on Change
As February 2008 approached, Barack Obama stunned the field of Democratic contenders by winning the Iowa Caucus and reshaping what was expected to be the presumed coronation of Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy. With both the Florida and Michigan results in limbo due to disputes with the Democratic National Committee of the scheduling of their primaries, Hillary Clinton supporters pointed to her victories in these states and the battleground state of Nevada as proof positive that she had what it took to win in November. But Obama took the South Carolina primary just before Super Tuesday and Armenian Americans were looking to where the candidates stood on issues of concern to them.
In response to a questionnaire issued by the Armenian National Committee of America, for the first time in presidential election history, candidates were compelled to address their stance on Armenian American issues before the major party candidates were selected. While on the Republican side of the isle, the lone, tepid response came from US Senator John McCain’s campaign, all three major candidates for the Democratic Party nomination had submitted letters of varying support.
On the eve of Super Tuesday, the ANCA made the decision to stand behind the candidacy of Barack Obama. In a statement released on January 30, 2008, ANCA Chairman Ken Hachikian proclaimed, “The Armenian National Committee of America is proud today to endorse Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. Based on his strong record in office, his bold statemen’s as a candidate, and our judgment as to the policies he will pursue as President, we believe that, among a strong field of Democratic candidates, Senator Obama will best reflect the views and values of Armenian American voters.”
This coincided with the formation and unveiling of A4O which joined the ANCA at a press conference in Los Angeles, CA for the endorsement announcement.
Billed as “a nationwide voter registration, education, and mobilization effort” to elect Barack Obama President of the United States, A4O quickly engaged activists across the nation. Based in Los Angeles, California, it marshaled activists from the Armenian community both large and small across the country.
“In my 10 years of involvement in politics, I have never seen the Armenian community so engaged and committed in an election,” noted Areen Ibran’ssian, Chairman of A4O. “The amount of volunteers we supplied to the Obama campaign is phenomenal, especially considering the relatively small size of the Armenian community in some of the states where we were active,” he added.
Yet many in the community, while aware of A4O’s work, are unaware of how it came to be a force acknowledged by the Obama campaign for its meaningful contribution to the election effort.
Aram Hamparian, Executive Director of the ANCA, explained the inception of A4O. He described it as a calculated response to an organic movement within the community. Almost immediately after the ANCA announced its Obama endorsement for the Democratic primary elections, Armenian Americans began looking for a way to contribute to the campaign and have their voices heard by the future president.
“The ANCA, soon after endorsing Barack Obama in January of 2008, began working cooperatively with a broad cross-section of Armenian American Democratic activists to organize the Armenia’s for Obama effort," he said.
He also explained that the ANCA’s and the broader Armenian-American community’s support for Senator Obama was not spontaneous.
"The endorsement was based on his past record, his campaign statemen’s, and a collective judgment that he represented the best opportunity to bring about real change in how the United States addresses issues of special concern to Armenian-Americans," Hamparian said.
Building a Movement for Change
Decisions and moves had to be fast. The selection of Ibran’ssian as Chairman helped build upon the early momentum created by the ANCA’s endorsement, recruiting a team of community activists and organizers from throughout the United States to help spearhead the undertaking.
“The Armenian-American community had a relatively large talent pool from which to draw. We were able to quickly assemble a team to tackle day-to-day activities,” Ibran’ssian explained. His team included foreign policy experts, individuals who had served in past administrations, public relations and management professionals, journalists, lawyers, IT professionals, veterans of the Kerry/Edwards campaign, and community business leaders.
“Through constant communication we were able to work collectively in the best interest of the Armenian American community as well as the campaign,” said Ani Hagopian, A4O Outreach Coordinator. Hagopian pointed to the A4O network of supporters connected via e-mail, Facebook and by reaching out to over 3000 A4O supporters in addition to established local Armenian American community and groups of ANCA activists throughout the country.
From the beginning A4O activists were hard at work, canvassing door-to-door, organizing fundraisers and hosting nationwide platform meetings in preparation for the Democratic convention. The momentum created along the way drew more people to the organization, growing its numbers and reach.
A4O’s primary objective was to reach out to Armenian-American voters and activists to make sure they were informed of Senator Obama’s stance on Armenian issues. But their efforts soon expanded beyond the Armenian-American to non-Armenia’s. Not only did A4O work with the Obama campaign, it also reached out to its counterparts in other ethnic communities such as South Asians for Obama and Greek Americans for Obama.
As the campaign pressed into the summer and then into the general elections season, A4O organized and supported efforts to phone bank in swing states, register new voters nationwide, appealing to undecided voters, and informing constituents where the candidate stood on broad range of public policy issues. Through A4O’s efforts, Armenian Americans were reaching out from their large communities and Democratic strongholds of California, Michigan, Illinois as well as the northeast corridor and poised to make a difference in critical swing states including Colorado, Florida, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.
“There were a handful of Berkeley students who were enthusiastic supporters of Obama and anxious to do some phone-banking to show their support,” noted Shant Hagopian, a student at UC Berkeley who reached out through the Facebook to enlist the support of friends from the Armenian Student Association and Armenian Youth Federation to help the campaign. “I felt the Armenian American community in the bay area wanted to do more and we wanted to address that,” he added.
“Armenia’s for Obama reached out to as many communities as we could. We focused a lot of our energy on the battleground states and tried to make as much of an impact as possible. We were very successful and were able to let our activists know what was going on across the United States,” said Hagopian.
Capturing National Attention
A4O’s efforts also garnered media attention from both within and outside the Armenian American community. Regular news stories dotted the pages of Asbarez and Armenian newspapers and media outlets both in the United States and in Armenia.
Just days before Super Tuesday, A4O released a YouTube endorsement by genocide scholar, Samantha Power. In the video, the renowned author and Harvard professor explained her support for Obama and encouraged Armenian Americans to do the same.
In October, with the two major party’s nominees selected, The Atlantic ran an article entitled “McCain’s Armenian Problem” which discussed the Republican candidate’s difficulty in connecting with the Armenian American community. A4O was prominently featured in the article and Ibran’ssian outlined some of the major problems the community had with McCain on issues of concern to them.
A4O drew attention beyond the pages of the press. A4O also built a working relationship with senior staffers within the Obama campaign.
“A4O was one of the most active and effective self-funded ethnic efforts during this campaign. They began the relationship during the primary season, but the intensity and consistency of the contacts increased once David Burd took on the role of Obama’s Ethnic Outreach Coordinator,” noted Rostom Sarkissian, who worked for the Obama campaign in Colorado.
Obama’s campaign staff regularly pointed to A4O and its exemplary mobilization efforts working both with its own A4O volunteers and independent Armenian American activists.
“Having someone inside the campaign is a great asset. They let the campaign know how the community is contributing on the ground while providing a bridge between individuals as well as groups like A4O and the campaign to maximize the impact a community’s volunteers can make,” said Tania Sahakian, a Volunteer Coordinator for the Obama Campaign in California.
While the Obama campaign had released multiple statemen’s to the ANCA and A4O throughout the election season, one that stands that highlights the importance Obama placed on Armenian American issues and his regard for the ANCA and A4O.
Days before the election, the Turkish press published several reports that Ahmet Davutoglu, foreign policy advisor to the Turkish Prime Minister, had traveled to the United States to meet with Obama campaign senior officials. It was reported that he discussed the presidential candidates’ position on bi-lateral and regional issues including the Armenian Genocide. The Turkish press went on to imply that these deliberations would help ensure that regardless of who was elected president in November, that individual would not affirm the Armenian Genocide.
In response, the Obama campaign issued a statement to counter these insinuations by reaffirming Obama’s commitment to US-Armenia relations, Armenian Genocide affirmation, and genocide prevention.
A Victory for Obama and Armenian Americans
“The Obama-Biden ticket is probably the most pro-Armenian ticket to win the presidential race since Woodrow Wilson. With the help of key advisors such as Samantha Powers, Obama started paying attention to Armenian issues from the very beginning and stuck with his commitmen’s throughout the campaign,” noted Babken Der Grigorian, who worked for the Obama campaign in the swing state of Florida.
“A4O was the fuel that made that possible. A4O showcased the role Armenia’s were playing in the campaign and made it very apparent to them that Armenia’s are working hard for Obama”, he added.
The victory was not only about policy. It was an inspiring and exciting introduction to politics for those who were involved in their first campaign experience. For election season veterans from a community that prides itself on its grassroots strength, it reaffirmed that individuals and small communities can affect positive change when they choose civic engagement.
“I had never seen a campaign like this before. I have volunteered and worked with a lot of campaigns, but the Obama campaign really mobilized people of all ages using text messaging and e-mails to get people active,” noted Matt Senekeremian, a volunteer with the Obama campaign in the San Francisco Bay area. “For me, the campaign epitomized the saying that all politics is local.”
This campaign was fought day-to-day and in that regard it serves as a stark reminder to the Armenian American community that the issues of concern can be successfully addressed if approached in a similar way.
No longer can Armenian Genocide affirmation be confined to an April effort or a single resolution. Rather the resolution is only a first step towards continuous endeavor for greater education and genocide prevention. No longer can improving US-Armenia relations be limited to foreign assistance by the federal government. Rather this relationship must be expanded to include a broad spectrum of fields including cultural, social, economic, military, academic, artistic, etc. which spans from the local to the federal. It is not done through one day’s work. It is not in one way.
Hamparian summarized where the community stands today. “We’ve reached a new level, but our work is actually getting more challenging as the forces aligned against Armenian Americans are working overtime to roll back our progress and silence our growing voice in the formulation of United States foreign policy.”
A4O kept these issues relevant and at the forefront throughout the campaign season. Now time will only tell if those who stood up for change on November 4th will match their expectations of Obama with the continued grassroots activism to keep these issues among those at the forefront of his presidential human rights and regional foreign policy agenda.