Thursday, January 24, 2013

Barack Obama: Community Organizer

People joke about President Obama’s abilities at eleven-dimensional chess. I think that Obama has a long-term strategy, more understandable than eleven-dimensional chess. I also think that it’s quite different from much of what passes for strategy in political Washington.

Obama came into office in January 2009 with an enormous number of problems facing the country. He had been dealing with the financial crisis since his election. That crisis was, in a way, the culmination of the financialization of the American economy, which, along with tax and other policy, had hollowed out prospects for the middle class. The country was stuck in two wars that had very little to do with its national interests. Other aspects of the “War on Terror” that damage the perception of the US abroad and damage civil liberties at home persisted long after any utility had disappeared. North Korea had demonstrated nuclear weapons, and Iran was engaged in pursuit of technology that could make nuclear weapons possible for them.

Perhaps the most difficult problem Obama faced, though, was an apathetic electorate and media that depicted that president as the only political actor in the country. Democracy can’t work without the participation of the people.

Obama would have seen that apathy before, as a community organizer. Poor communities are often demoralized or do not know how to fight for what they need. The organizer’s job is to get citizens active in helping themselves. This involves many things: educating citizens on their rights and ways to go about changing their circumstances, which would include the political process; and encouraging the citizens to take action on their own behalf.

That last is the trick to successful community organization. The members of the community must achieve their own successes; having an organizer do it for them is likely to deepen their feelings of incompetence. That was not what the columnists said Obama “must” do, whether that was cutting taxes or entitlements, or giving inspiring speeches; they emphasized the president as the initiator of action.
There are indeed some things that the president can do. Closing Guantanamo might have been one, but early moves in that direction made it obvious that public support would be necessary. In fact, public support is necessary for most of what the President does. Additionally, many of the things that columnists like to say the President “must” do are in fact the the business of Congress, whose members are more directly responsible to the voters.

Community organizing is usually done face to face. You talk to people, find out where they’re getting stuck, what their gripes are. Community organizing the whole nation is a real challenge. And Congress, although nominally an instrument of the people, also responds to monied interests that may not represent the people. Obama needed a two-pronged strategy: convince voters that they needed to become more active and turn Congress toward the voters. Obama and the people working for him knew that he had a significant majority of the voters on his side in both the 2008 and 2012 elections. That was a place to start.

Obama’s campaign contributions were largely from individuals, and the campaigns emphasized this. As president, Obama appeals to voters in his speeches to contact their congressional representatives. And, most importantly, he doesn’t present himself as the great solo problem-solver. Not the magic president landing his jet plane on the aircraft carrier to “Mission Accomplished.” Just trying to do his job, with your help.

Leaving the development of the health care bill up to Congress indicated that the President is not the only actor. Voters could work through their representatives to get what they wanted in the bill. It was up to Congress to do its job responsibly. The process was much messier than an imagined comprehensive bill dropped from the President’s Office onto Congress and then voted on.

An important part of a community organizer’s job is not to act when others should. When they act, they feel empowered, they learn, and they are ready to do more. The conventional wisdom, however, was of a president presenting bold initiatives to Congress and rallying the nation with inspiring speeches. So there was much criticism of Obama for not “taking the initiative.”

That conventional wisdom was also unsound politically. A strong stand, particularly in the face of stated determined Republican opposition, would merely solidify that opposition.  If the people are behind a bill, it is harder for the Republicans to oppose them without looking bad.


I became responsible for managing environmental cleanups in an organization where “delegating up” was standard practice. One delegates up by acting as if one doesn’t know how to approach a problem or by simply ignoring it. It’s like the inability of husbands to comprehend the operation of the washing machine. For it to fully take hold, the managers have to be willing to step in a little too eagerly, like that activist president of the conventional wisdom.

We had to assess what needed to be done and plan the work, let contracts, make sure the cleanup was done correctly, assess whether what was done met state laws for health protection, and write a report that would be part of the legal record of compliance. The team included samplers, engineers, statisticians, chemists, and technical writers.

I laid out the work and priorities in the first few meetings with team leaders. There was not much response.

That lack of response is unnerving. If the team wasn’t doing what they were supposed to do, maybe the project wouldn’t get done. There was no way I could do everything myself, but the temptation to pick up the slack was enormous. I gritted my teeth and did my part of the job, nothing more. Talked to team members about the project. Then one day one of them asked some questions and made a suggestion in a meeting. And others began to respond.


Mobilizing the people was not Obama’s only task. Dealing with the dysfunction in Congress was necessary as well.

Democrats in Congress were badly split. The Blue Dogs could not be expected to vote a party line, and the rest were thoroughly cowed. Republicans had been charging toward extreme rightwing territory for a long time. What had been centrist or even Republican policies a few decades earlier were now far on the left.

Civil political discourse was badly damaged by rightwing talk radio and lazy mainstream media, a large segment of which checked in with the Drudge Report every morning. The journalistic standard was to report the controversy, meaning that both sides got equal time, no matter how crazy, no matter how few people supported one of them. This greatly favored rightwing extremism.

A straightforward attack on rightwing desires to disassemble government would throw gasoline on the rightwing fires. The citizens that Obama wanted to mobilize would be frightened off.

A route to the high ground was open. The media admired bipartisan initiatives. Polls showed that large numbers of citizens wanted Congress to find a way to work together for the good of the country. So Obama would do everything he could to find bipartisan solutions for the country. He offered Republican-leaning solutions to Republicans and then was willing to split the difference, and split the difference again. The ACA and New START Treaty passed, along with a long list of other achievements. He used executive actions where necessary and desirable, ending the war in Iraq and withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. He allowed Congress to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
He didn’t crow about his successes but quietly and carefully worked with Congress for bipartisan solutions. Because citizens wanted cooperation and bipartisanship, he built credibility and confidence, a base against which Republican intransigence came to appear more and more unreasonable.

By 2010, they were explicit: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said that their primary goal was to make President Obama a one-term president. Nothing else mattered, not even the good of the country. They didn’t offer alternatives, just ending this presidency.

Republicans have been setting up their internal incentives to favor a continuing march to the right. They have been protected by the media bubble of Fox News and talk radio, which cheer the march on. They have used their political power within the states to redistrict in their favor. But they came to a point of ideology some time ago that most of the country is very uncomfortable with. As the Republicans of Indiana found out, their long-time senator, Richard Lugar, may be unacceptable to the party, but Richard Mourdock, the Tea Party’s favorite, was unacceptable to the state’s voters. This dynamic was ripe for exploitation by President Obama.

The strategy here is simple. Present Republicans with a reasonable deal, sometimes woven out of earlier Republican ideas now unacceptable to an ever more extreme party. Although the media liked to say that “both sides” were being intransigent or that “both sides” had virtue in their positions, it eventually became evident to the public that one side was less reasonable than the other. As Obama took the more reasonable ground, a strategy of unthinking opposition drove the Republicans to ever more ridiculous extremes. Thus, Mourdock was one of their candidates in the 2012 election telling women that rape was their lot in life. And now Republicans loudly object to the nomination of a moderate Republican as Secretary of Defense.

Like moving the public to greater involvement, this strategy could not be expected to bear fruit immediately. It's been four years.

His reelection made Obama the most popular President since Dwight Eisenhower. More popular than the right’s idealized Ronald Reagan. More political capital than what George Bush gloated over. And his popularity is increasing since the election. (Time/CNN. NBC News/WSJ. WaPo/ABC News.) The polls are in Obama’s favor or moving that way on the big issues. Raising the debt ceiling. Gun control. Immigration. Climate change. Congressional job approval is at an all-time low, and Republicans are taking the blame.

Obama no longer has to worry about reelection and, with that public support, can propose bold initiatives. Three times since the election, John Boehner has chosen to violate the Hastert Rule, that bills can be brought to the House floor only if a majority of Republicans will vote for them: the fiscal cliff bill, aid for victims of Hurricane Sandy, and delaying the debt ceiling fight passed the House with majorities composed of Republicans and Democrats.

In his first four years, Obama has been reasonable to what some consider the point of unreasonableness. He has built his reputation and popular support with that reasonableness. This, and the very favorable election and poll results, is now be the basis for bolder action, which we are beginning to see.

Obama is taking back the rhetoric that has been appropriated by the right. In his remarks on Sandy Hook and his inaugural address, he spoke powerfully of faith and God. In his speech announcing his gun control initiative, he spoke of the rights of the victims mass shootings being abridged. “Liberal” is beginning not to sound so bad.

A task force on gun control headed by Vice President Joe Biden quickly reported, and Obama has signed 23 executive orders relating to gun control. Action is taking place on state and city levels, empowered people acting democratically. New York has passed a strong gun control bill already, and initiatives are under way on gun control in ColoradoMaryland, and other states. Gun buy-backs are springing up.

The immigration bill will be done all at once, not spread out so that the Republicans can nibble it down.

Since the election, the Republicans have been in such disarray that it’s tempting to think that the party might split, and that Obama can use this to his and Democrats’ advantage. Certainly his second inaugural speech laid out a clear agenda and came close to taunting in places.

The Republican Party was born out of the fight over slavery. The Democrats wouldn’t face up to it, but the Whigs were worse. A strong anti-slavery faction and businessmen facing unfair labor competition had nowhere to go. Nothing in today’s America is of the magnitude of the fight over slavery, which had simmered since 1776. Nor is there a faction of the strength and fierceness of those opposing slavery. Today’s Republicans will survive, although their way forward is not clear. It is likely to be something like what Bill Clinton accomplished with the Democratic Party in the 1990s.

Until then, President Obama is in charge. The Republican House will occasionally give some trouble, and the Senate is trying to decide if majority rule is a good thing. But the people are becoming active, and the narrative is moving in their direction.

Good job, community organizer!

Cross-posted to The Agonist.


Scott R. said...

Great piece Cheryl..., I too find that I am finding more all the time to think that maybe Obama will really do some great things going forward. Said so over on Mauberly's blog..., something like, "I think you will see a different Obama during the second term." I am glad to see that you think the same. I am beginning to see the same strategy that you do, as motive for some of the things I have bashed him about during the first term. I would have commented over at The Agonist..., but I have given up on them. Some of the comments there are the reason why.

Right on partner..., write on.

Cheryl Rofer said...

Thanks, Scott!