Monday, December 27, 2010

Community Organizing Shows Some Results

I’ve argued that President Obama is using community organizing tactics as part of his presidential strategy. The country is divided, the Congress has been powerless, and dialog among political positions is poisonous. How would a community organizer bring people together?

One of the principles of community organizing is to enable and encourage people to do the things only they can do for themselves. It’s not up to the President to pass legislation through Congress or to make our discourse civil. It’s up to Congress, the voters, us.

Exhortation has its limits. Preachers have limited appeal today. So the argument for the President’s bully pulpit is far too optimistic. In fact, the suspicion of authority figures and the readiness of the political opposition to take words and phrases out of context makes the bully pulpit potentially counterproductive. Part of that suspicion, too, comes from promises made and not kept. Better not to promise any more; political campaigns demand it, and Obama has a campaign backlog.

So Obama has limited his speechmaking to allow the rest of us to figure out what we need to do. Buy-in is always better if the buyer thinks it’s her idea.

And it’s working. Dennis G. at Balloon Juice links to the long lists of accomplishments halfway through President Obama’s first term. I’ll add in David Ignatius’s accounting of foreign policy successes. Health care reform, the New START Treaty, two new Supreme Court justices, straightening out some of the many messes the Bush Administration left behind. The record seems to be comparable to that of Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson.

I’m reading David Halberstam’s War in a Time of Peace, about the 1990s wars in the former Yugoslavia and the US response to them. The book starts with the George H. W. Bush administration, but it is mostly about the Clinton administration. Halberstam focuses on the response to the war, but the context of domestic politics and disorder within the administration is provided as well.

We won’t have the same sort of look at the Obama administration for a few years yet, but they appear to be far ahead of the Clinton administration in fulfilling campaign promises and doing what they set out to do.

Dennis G. looks at the disappointment of some on the left with Obama and suggests that it’s because Obama’s reality conflicts with the expectations of the disappointed ones. I tend to agree that what Dennis proposes is part of that reaction, but I would add that the disappointment is that Obama is making us think and work for ourselves, not handing us solutions on a silver platter. Handing over the work to the people suited to doing it frequently provokes griping, particularly when they have become accustomed to something else. But Congress got with the program, all the way through its extremely productive lame duck session.

So Obama and his cabinet can move forward on the issues not dealt with or not completed. Global warming, Guantanamo, bringing the economy back to full health. And it sounds like they’re ramping up for it. The administration is already addressing, by regulatory means, carbon dioxide emissions and remuneration for doctors discussing end-of-life directives with their patients, left out of the health care reform legislation because of the Republican-generated hysteria over “death panels.”

Republicans are vowing to fight the regulatory agencies, but they have been weakened by the lame duck successes. The administration peeled off thirteen Republicans who care more about national security than Republican fantasies, in the face of the Senate minority leader’s determination to vote against New START. And the Senate remains majority Democratic. Changes to the filibuster rules are likely, which will further weaken the Republicans. None of that is necessarily transferable to the House, but perhaps the Republican leadership there will recognize that it is making itself look foolish, or the voters will see it and pull things back on track.

That’s another community organizing precept. Don’t go head-to-head with opponents. Give them the opportunity to go to their extremes and alienate potential supporters

Additionally, ordinary people are beginning to speak up. The controversy over grabbing grandma’s junk at TSA checkpoints hasn’t gone away. The unfairnesses in the financial system continue to provoke anger. Some of the crazier Tea Party aberrations were thoroughly rejected in November’s election.

I’ll disagree with Steve Clemons. The successes aren’t centered on Obama. If his game is picking up, it’s because it takes some time in community organizing to get everyone on the team and to let those who don’t want to be self-destruct. I’m looking forward to 2011.


Paul said...

However, I think it could be argued that New START in particular, turned into a success precisely because Obama got more involved and started getting engaged with Senators in order to pass this bill (along with Joe Biden, Kerry, Lugar, and Clinton).

Although passage ended up with quite comfortable numbers, it literally was within the last 48 hours that they got enough votes for ratification. Before that, they were dead in the water.

A surprisingly close run thing considering its moderate nature (and that it was designed from the outset to be moderate to get republicans on board).

Cheryl Rofer said...

But of course New START was something of an exception. As a treaty, it is part of the President's portfolio. John Kerry and Harry Reid laid the groundwork, and Joe Biden did much of the persuading.

I'm not sure they were "dead in the water" before the last 48 hours. There clearly was a bandwagoning effect, which might have been due to phone calls or to the realization on the part of the Republicans signing on at that time that there was a bandwagon about to leave.

Close run because of the strategy of all-out obstructionism adopted by the Republicans for this congress. And the moderate nature of the treaty was at least as much due to the need for speed in getting the verification regime up and running again as it was pleasing the Republicans.

troutsky said...

Wow, these are the rosiest colored glasses I've run into in a long time!

Lame Duck Successes Changes Everything! Hope and Change are Back! ( after a minor intermission)

A couple easy, common sense agreements and suddenly politics is healthy again and it's onward to climate change, wars and global justice.

Cheryl Rofer said...

They're only "easy, common sense agreements" in a world in which Republicans recognize their responsibility for governing too. We haven't seen much of that world lately. The lame duck session might be a forerunner of something like that.

Then again, it might not.