August 24, 2009
A Presidential Learning MomentBy Lee Cary
The chaos surrounding proposed healthcare legislation offers President Obama the opportunity for a learning moment. The question is: What insight, if any, will he glean from it?
Barack Obama is educated in the street skills of an inner city community organizer. In that venue, he didn't focus on the plight of a particular constituency in distress -- not on the male alcoholic street people, not on the drug addicted, nor on abused women, nor unwed teenage mothers without shelter. Instead he aimed to organize a community to push for asbestos removal, to advocate a local job-training office, to push for potholes to be filled and stop signs put up. The scope of his focus testifies to a fundamental naïveté, perhaps attributable to his youth. Aim small, hit small. Aim wide, miss wide. His disappointment was inevitable.
In 1985, Obama was hired as a 23-year-old community organizer in Chicago. According to a March 30, 2008 Chicago Tribune article, "The more Obama worked as an organizer, the more he became convinced that the most serious problems he confronted couldn't be solved on the local level." He bailed out and went to Harvard.
Five years later, Obama was the subject of a February 6, 1990 New York Times article (available only through the paper's archives) that profiled the 28-year old, newly-elected president of the Harvard Law School Review. According to the article, Obama said, ‘I personally am interested in pushing a strong minority perspective. I'm fairly opinionated about this. But as president of the law review, I have a limited role as only first among equals.'" He told the Times that, after graduation, he planned to spend two or three years in private law practice and then return to Chicago to reenter community work, either in politics or in local organizing. He chose politics.
Back in Chicago, he went to work in a law firm owned by Allison Davis. The firm specialized in providing legal services for those who contracted with the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) to provide housing for Chicago's poor. More than one of the firm's clients matched the description of a slum landlord.
Eventually, Obama became an Illinois State Senator. His efforts to use his office to alleviate the plight of those in his district who lived in deplorable housing projects were conspicuous by their absence. On June 27, 2008, the Boston Globe quoted Jamie Kalven, "longtime Chicago housing activist," as saying, "I hope there is not much predictive value in his (Obama's) history and in his involvement with that (public housing developers) community." His involvement in public housing was focused on building support among those who profited from constructing and managing public housing projects. Antoin "Tony" Rezko was just one such person.
Obama's sights were set on rising to a higher plain where he could practice community organization on a national scale. Maybe even global.
His opportunity to make a significant impact on the serious problems he saw as a 23-year old community organizer came seven months ago. Today, he's already well on the way to blowing it. Here's why.
President Obama continues to act like the powerless community organizer he once was. He knows how to push. That's what community organizers do. But he doesn't know how to lead. And leadership is the one essential skill required to govern effectively.
That doesn't mean intimidation can't play a productive role in effective leadership. Lyndon Johnson was a master at twisting arms, often to the breaking point. But he mostly did it in private where intimidation can, when done artfully, be necessary and effective. But, when done in full view, it can be seen as heavy-handed bullying, and be perceived as mean and little.
Obama's community organizing tactics are beginning to wear thin with a majority of the American public, whatever their partisan persuasions. Some, who still feel warm toward him as a person, are growing cold to his leadership style.
To a community organizer in an impoverished and powerless neighborhood, agitation and confrontation can be effective tools for those without access to power dependent on money. Appeals to the better angels of our nature only go so far on the dark streets. Confrontation, though, can tap its own power source. At some point, dealing with aggravation becomes more of a hassle than the cost of placating the source. Squeak loud enough and some grease usually comes.
As President, Obama's default tactics are those of a street-level community organizer. He says, "But I don't want the folks who created the mess to do a lot of talking. I want them to get out of the way so we can clean up the mess. I don't mind cleaning up after them, but don't do a lot of talking." The short version, addressed to those who oppose him, is "Shut up and step aside! I won the election." Problem is, that approach only throws gasoline on the fires of opposition. Obama should have learned that lesson from his community organizing days. But then, maybe he never got close enough long enough to the heat back then to carry scars from the learning.
President Obama has surrounded himself with political operatives who share an affinity for agitation tactics. His chief political strategist, David Axelrod, recently called Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, a "pile driver." Representative Darrell Issa (R.-CA) described Emanuel as "a brass-knuckle Chicago politician." Emanuel's deputy, Jim Messina, told Senate Democrats facing resistance to Obamacare that, "If you get hit, we will punch back twice as hard." This is motivational bravado when spoken by a community organizer. It's arrogant intimidation when it comes out of the mouths of those representing a nation's political leadership.
The major difference between brass-knuckle Chicago politics and the street-level agitation of a community organizer is the size of the fist and the hardness of the brass. In both cases, it's fundamentally about intimidation.
When used against those who are easily intimidated, either because of their lack of power or lack of courage, it works. After all, it worked on the leadership of General Motors and on the Chrysler bondholders. It worked on several large banks. It worked on the large pharmaceutical companies that have become acquiescent to Obamacare. It's being tried now on the CEO's of health insurance companies. The diminutive Congressman from California with the trademark moustache and the elf-like ears sent the CEO's an intimidating letter full of demands. Intimidation works on the weak. Weak people. Weak organizations. Weak nations.
It's long worked in Chicago politics where opposition to the Democratic Party machine doesn't reach the level of weak.
But it will not be an effective leadership style when governing the United States of America. Weakness does not abound here. On balance, intimidation will be ultimately counterproductive.
The sooner President Obama experiences that learning moment, if he's able, the better off we'll all be. And the much less painful the next three years will be. For us all.