Seeking the Power Of a Community Organizer

The Hour

Obama
GETTY IMAGES
Obama

By Leonard Fein

Published October 13, 2010, issue of October 22, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Back during Barack Obama’s campaign for the presidency, I frequently found myself arguing with friends who were supporting Hillary Clinton’s bid. “How,” they would ask, “do you expect this young and relatively inexperienced man to stand up to the walruses of the Congress? They will ride roughshod over him!”

My answer, which seemed to me (but not to them) compelling, was that I did not expect Obama to be able to stand up to Congress. What I did expect was that he would use his skills as a community organizer to mobilize “the people” and have them press their representatives in Congress. I did worry a bit about whether you could successfully keep the people mobilized over the long haul, but in light of Obama’s evident success as a populist campaigner, that was a second-order worry. I believed that “Yes we can!” would carry the day — and the years of the Obama presidency.

I was wrong, and I was right. I did not then know the other part of Obama, the deeply thoughtful and sober leader, a man of few public words and much quiet reflection. Nor did I, and I believe this is more important, calculate the importance of Obama’s senior advisers in the process. Whatever their virtues, neither Larry Summers nor Timothy Geithner have even a smidgen of populist streak. Neither, so far as I can tell, does Rahm Emanuel nor David Axelrod. These and others have, it seems to me, acted to inhibit the president’s skills at community organization.

The result? The best example is the dismal debate on health care, an arduous episode of misconnection and disconnection, of non-sequiturs, lies, a national debate in which all the mobilization was by the other side. “Yes we can!” devolved into…silence. With periodic exceptions, none of them part of a sustained effort, the president seemed hors de combat, out of action. And the explanations — preoccupation with a broken economy, preoccupation with Afghanistan, preoccupation with a baker’s dozen of very real issues, even crises — were simply insufficient.

These last few weeks, the candidate has finally re-emerged. It’s not possible to capture on paper the electricity of Obama the candidate, but if you can close your eyes while you read (I know, I know) this brief excerpt from his speech at the University of Wisconsin on September 28, remembering the rhythms and the sureness — well, here it is: “The fact is that we’re not where we need to be — not even close. The hole that we’re climbing out of is a deep one…. So I understand that people are frustrated. I understand people are impatient with the pace of change. Of course they are. Look, I’m impatient, but I also know this: Now is not the time to lose heart. Now is not the time to give up. We do not quit. And we cannot forget that this nation has been through far worse and we have come out stronger from war to Depression to the great struggle for equal rights and civil rights. We do not quit.”

He continued: “In every instance, progress took time. In every instance, progress took sacrifice. Progress took faith. You know, the slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs, they weren’t sure when slavery would end but they understood it was going to end. When women were out there marching for the right to vote, they weren’t sure when it was going to happen but they kept on going. When workers were organizing for the right to organize and were being intimidated, they weren’t sure when change was going to come but they knew it was going to come. And I am telling you, Wisconsin, we are bringing about change and progress is going to come — but you’ve got to stick with me. You can’t lose heart.”

I recognize that that kind of rhetoric is not what governing’s about — not entirely. But neither is it a device to be stashed away during the many months between elections. It is, or can be, an important tool of leadership. The voice of the candidate, of this once and future candidate, is simply too valuable a resource to be put into deep storage.

The Republicans have been hugely successful in transforming the November elections into a referendum on Obama, even though his name will not be on any ballot. Obama’s approval ratings are low. And it is late in the day, perhaps too late. But maybe, just maybe, I was right, back during the last campaign, to think that a community organizer could trump the special interests and the broken institutions that currently so ill serve the American people.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.