Saturday, October 06, 2012

The credo of a community organizer

Frontline has put up a series of "artifacts" from the lives of Obama and Romney, including a letter, highlighted by Fallows, that Obama wrote to a friend in 1985 (at age 25) when he was a few months into his job as a community organizer on Chicago's South Side. One sentence leaped out at me, because it's echoed in Obama's rhetoric throughout his career in a strain that's often written off as mystical hooey -- including last month, in Charlotte. Not to be coy, I've highlighted it below.
I work in five different neighborhoods of differing economic conditions. In one neighborhood, I'll be meeting with a group or irate homeowners, working class folks, bus drivers and nurses and clerical administrators, whose section of town has been ignored by the Department of Streets and Sanitations since the whites moved out twenty years ago. In another, I'll be trying to bring together a group of welfare mothers, mothers at 15, grandmothers at 30, great-grandmothers at 45, trying to help them win better job training and day care facilities from the State. In either situation, I walk into a room and make promises I hope they can help me keep. They generally trust me, despite the fact that they've seen earnest young men pass through here before, expecting to change the world and eventually succumbing to the lure of a corporate office. And in a short time I've learned to care for them very much and want to do everything I can for them.
"Promises I hope they can help me keep": Obama's speech at the Democratic Convention this year cast his presidency as such a joint operation. Carefully blended together were the things that "I've" done as president, the tenets that "we" believe, and the choice that "you" must make. That I-you-we blend prepared this peroration:
We, the People, recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which only asks what’s in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defense. 

As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us, together, through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government.

So you see, the election four years ago wasn’t about me. It was about you. My fellow citizens – you were the change. 

You’re the reason there’s a little girl with a heart disorder in Phoenix who’ll get the surgery she needs because an insurance company can’t limit her coverage. You did that. 

You’re the reason a young man in Colorado who never thought he’d be able to afford his dream of earning a medical degree is about to get that chance. You made that possible. 

You’re the reason a young immigrant who grew up here and went to school here and pledged allegiance to our flag will no longer be deported from the only country she’s ever called home; why selfless soldiers won’t be kicked out of the military because of who they are or who they love; why thousands of families have finally been able to say to the loved ones who served us so bravely: “Welcome home.” 

If you turn away now – if you buy into the cynicism that the change we fought for isn’t possible…well, change will not happen. If you give up on the idea that your voice can make a difference, then other voices will fill the void: lobbyists and special interests; the people with the $10 million checks who are trying to buy this election and those who are making it harder for you to vote; Washington politicians who want to decide who you can marry, or control health care choices that women should make for themselves. 

Only you can make sure that doesn’t happen. Only you have the power to move us forward. 

I recognize that times have changed since I first spoke to this convention. The times have changed – and so have I. 

I’m no longer just a candidate. I’m the President. I know what it means to send young Americans into battle, for I have held in my arms the mothers and fathers of those who didn’t return. I’ve shared the pain of families who’ve lost their homes, and the frustration of workers who’ve lost their jobs. If the critics are right that I’ve made all my decisions based on polls, then I must not be very good at reading them. And while I’m proud of what we’ve achieved together, I’m far more mindful of my own failings, knowing exactly what Lincoln meant when he said, “I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go.” 

But as I stand here tonight, I have never been more hopeful about America. Not because I think I have all the answers. Not because I’m na├»ve about the magnitude of our challenges. 

I’m hopeful because of you.
Some saw this sentiment  a kind of cop-out, a confession that he was not able to change Washington himself, or as a misty denial of the way that he really had effected change: through hard bargaining with other politicians and corporate interests. That letter proves, to me at least, that it was rather a restatement of core beliefs, the credo of the community organizer writ large.  I have argued before that this appeal to the electorate, elaborated later in the month by Obama's assertion that he's learned that change comes from outside Washington, not inside, was really the opposite of naivete or obfuscation: it is rather a kind of cloaked declaration of war against a bad-faith opposition, a declaration of intent to bring to bear the pressure of popular opinion that favors his policies, a recognition that the Republicans respond only to political force.

What was naive in Obama's 2008 campaign, and in his approach to government once he took office, was the belief that the size of his mandate, and the force of his reason, and his preemptive adoption of "good" Republican ideas, would overcome political polarization and cutthroat partisan warfare. He rejected that belief in this year's convention speech, openly appealing to his audience to reject Republican policies and values and subservience to corporate interests.

"You were the change" was also a major theme of Obama's 2008 campaign, much mocked at the time as messianism run amok, given fullest expression in his "Super Tuesday" speech:
You see, the challenges we face will not be solved with one meeting in one night. It will not be resolved on even a Super Duper Tuesday. Change will not come if we wait for some other person or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. (Cheers, applause.) We are the change that we seek.

We are the hope of those boys who have so little, who've been told that they cannot have what they dream, that they cannot be what they imagine. Yes, they can. (Cheers, applause.)

We are the hope of the father who goes to work before dawn and lies awake with doubt that tells him he cannot give his children the same opportunities that someone gave him. Yes, he can.

(Crowd says in unison, "Yes, he can.")

We are the hope of the woman who hears that her city will not be rebuilt, that she cannot somehow claim the life that was swept away in a terrible storm. Yes, she can.

(Crowd says in unison, "Yes, she can.")

We are the hope of the future, the answer to the cynics who tell us our house must stand divided, that we cannot come together, that we cannot remake this world as it should be.

We know that we have seen something happen over the last several weeks, over the past several months. We know that what began as a whisper has now swelled to a chorus that cannot be ignored -- (cheers, applause) -- that will not be deterred, that will ring out across this land as a hymn that will heal this nation -- (cheers, applause) -- repair this world, make this time different than all the rest. Yes, we can.

Let's go to work. Yes, we can. Yes, we can. Yes, we can.

(Chants of "Yes, We Can! Yes, We Can!")

 Thank you, Chicago. Let's go get to work. I love you. (Cheers, applause.)
 I can see why the fervor of the crowd gave sober heads pause. But "we are the change we seek" was a more prosaic and hardheaded concept than it seemed. The passage above was immediately prefaced by a story from Obama's community organizing experience (recounted also in Dreams from My Father) :

I am blessed to be standing in the city where my own extraordinary journey of service began. (Cheers, applause.) You know, just a few miles from here, down on the south side, in the shadow of a shuttered steel plant, it was there that I learned what it takes to make change happen. I was a young organizer then -- in fact, there are some folks here who I organized with -- a young organizer intent on fighting joblessness and poverty on the south side.

And I still remember one of the very first meetings I put together. We had worked on it for days. We had made phone calls. We had knocked on doors. We had put out fliers. But on that night, nobody showed up. (Laughter.) Our volunteers who had worked so hard felt so defeated, they wanted to quit. And to be honest, so did I. But at that moment, I happened to look outside and I saw some young boys tossing stones at a boarded-up apartment building across the street. They were like the boys in so many cities across the country, little boys, but without prospects, without guidance, without hope for the future. And I turned to the volunteers and I asked them, "Before you quit, before you give up, I want you to answer one question: What will happen to those boys if we don't stand up for them?" (Cheers, applause.)

And those volunteers, they looked out that window and they saw those boys and they decided that night to keep going, to keep organizing, keep fighting for better schools, fighting for better jobs, fighting for better health care. And I did too. And slowly but surely, in the weeks and months to come, the community began to change.

You see, the challenges we face will not be solved with one meeting in one night. It will not be resolved on even a Super Duper Tuesday...
It didn't take a four-year crawl back from a financial industry meltdown to make Obama warn that change is slow and frustrating and unromantic. Understanding change as a joint project of leader and led is a concept that Obama has held, and expressed,  since he was a 24 year-old neophyte organizer.


  1. Thank you so much for this;

    It makes me so mad when even supposedly smart people like Jon Stewart who (ironically) worship at the altar of Michael Bloomberg etc, pretend not to understand what President Obama means when he insists that change is driven from the outside - by the people.
    It is indeed wonderful to find that change achieved together - and where everyone does their part - is a sentiment long held and expressed by this once in a generation President.

  2. It was nice reading this blog. Thanks for sharing

  3. The job of a community organizer is above all, to sow the seeds of discord whenever they can: between the haves and the have-nots, americans and illegals, white and blacks. Their job is, in short, to be community you can see by the stat of America's race relations actually degrading after we've got a community organizer at the helm of president. Even a black man (like myself) can see that once they have a firm grasp of how societies are broken down by communists/leftists (or liberals or progressives as the commies in hiding call themselves: same thing, different name. They change what they call themselves to hide who they are, and enact policies that seem good in the short term but have long-reaching destructive main goals, while enacting same policies as the eastern europe communists of old did.) First actively take over or enact policies to passively-aggressively destroy private industry, and indoctrinate the youth and unemployed to long-term - lifelong government dependence for as many essentials as possible. Next up: total gun ban, paving the way for totalitarian takeover supervised by the UN. Think it can't happen? Think of all the people you personally know (you might be one of those wrong-headed people yourself) who believe government has your best interest in mind and think only the police and military should have guns, and wouldn't hesitate to trample your rights and the constitution. It's happened in every country where all the guns were taken from the foolish populace. An armed populace is why Hitler very carefully avoided trying to conquer Switzerland. Now consider the many on the left in the CURRENT government who call the constitution (including the second amendment, that which at least levels the playing field should government become aggressively corrupt as Russia and China's has, and lets us use firearms to protect our (eroding) rights by firearm instead of knives and clubs vs military weapons. Guns make polite neighbors, and keep the government a point.