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Tuesday, December 22, 2009


In response to an earlier post today, Ann asks what Obama's style is. The answer is going to take me a while, so I have decided to make it an independent post rather than a response to a comment.

Let me begin, as I so often do, with a story. Last summer, Susie and I, along with many, many others, volunteered to work in North Carolina in the Obama presidential campaign. A meeting was called in the nearby town of Hillsborough for all those who signed a sheet offering to work in some way in the campaign, and we drove up to a rather nice home donated for the occasion by a sympathizer. Running the meeting were two very young paid staff -- Shilpa, a UNC student on leave for a year, and Andrew, a veteran of the primary campaign in his native Iowa, now traveling the country wherever he was needed.

Perhaps eighteen of us or so gathered in a large circle and Andrew said that we would begin by having each person tell how he or she had come to be involved in Obama's bid for the presidency. This was not to be a quick name-and-profession intro, uttered in an all but inaudible voice. As Andrew made clear from his own story, which started us around the circle, the idea was to really tell us all just what Obama's campaign meant to each of us. After two or three people had taken their turn, I began to get impatient. I was there to get my marching orders and start campaigning. A quick calculation suggested it might take an hour and a half or more to get all the way around the circle. But this was not my show, so I sat quietly waiting my turn.

After a while, three things dawned on me. The first was that this technique was the hallmark of the Obama campaign, and was undoubtedly being repeated in hundreds of living rooms around the country. Andrew and Shilpa had been briefed and trained in Chicago, and were enacting a ritual that the campaign had mandated. The second was that this ritual, tedious though it might be to me, was having the effect of actively involving everyone there in a way that allowed them to take ownership of the campaign and see themselves as active co-creators of it. The third was that almost certainly, this technique had been adapted from Obama's experience as a community organizer.

All of you, surely, have heard the story Obama told countless times on the campaign trail of the meeting at which just this ritual had been enacted. A young White girl spoke a long time about what it meant for her to have an opportunity to work on the campaign. When the turn came around to an old Black man, he just gestured quietly at the White girl and said, "I am here because of her." Tears came to my eyes the first time I heard Obama tell that story, and even now it has the power to move me.

So the first answer to Ann's question is this: Obama is at heart a community organizer, and the techniques, the modalities, the emotions of that role infuse his presidency as it infused his campaign. Presidents differ enormously in the way in which they interact with the people they seek to lead. Roosevelt inspired us by his patrician grace, his moving rhetoric, his deep commitment to progressive ideals. But one cannot imagine him sitting in a circle like that one in Hillsborough, listening, really listening, as each person spoke. Clinton was larger than life, a force of nature, desperately wanting us to love him and willing to give all of himself to win our adoration. Eisenhower had a calm authority that came, I suppose, from having led the largest and most successful invasion in modern warfare. Jack Kennedy was a rock star, a Princeling, distant but intimate, impossibly handsome.

Community organizing is hard work, especially when the community is a Black ghetto in South Side Chicago. Your goals are defined by the needs of the people you are trying to organize -- a stoplight at a dangerous intersection, better garbage collection, a stop to police brutality, more city jobs, tax breaks to keep local businesses from moving to the suburbs. You must lift people's spirits and make them believe in the real possibility of mass action and people power, while being willing to bargain with unsympathetic city bosses and settle for what you can get. You need a shrewd understanding of what is possible, while never losing sight of the collective good for which you are fighting.

As I have remarked before on this blog, one key to understanding Obama's style of governing is the extraordinary line he used to such brilliant effect in his stump speeches. To his adoring audience, he would say, "We are the change we have been waiting for." Think for a moment, really think, what that line means. He did not say, "I am the change you have been waiting for," nor did he even say, "You are the change you have been waiting for." He said, "We are the change we have been waiting for." The "we" here is not the slate of politicians up for election, nor the government employees waiting in Washington, D. C. for a new administration. It is all of us, including Obama himself, who together are ready to change this country. There was never a suggestion that our role would end, and his begin, when the election results were in.

The second clue to Obama's style is his ineffable cool. I recall - do you? - the wonderful moment when, in a speech on the stump, he referred to criticism of himself, and with a Cary Grant-like gesture, brushed his lapel as if to brush off a flea. Little moments like that tell us more about character than the imposing set speeches written by a stable of writers and delivered with the aid of transparent teleprompters. Obama is the coolest man to occupy the presidency in living memory [who knows what Thomas Jefferson was like?]

Put all this together, and I think you have a clue as to how Obama's style as a politician explains his role in the health care reform struggle. This really is his victory, despite the fact that Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid carried the water for him, and Rahm Emanuel played eminence grise.

Does that help, Ann?

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Wow! Thank you!

While I am still digesting your comments, I have two reactions (as usual).

The hopeful one is that this style of campaign and presidency is much like (get ready for this) conscious-raising techniques of the women's movement in the 1970s, not just community organizing. It is meant to develop lasting, even egalitarian, relationships among the participants, and is amazingly powerful and durable.

The other response is more cynical, remembering the deep disappointment of the left with this health care reform bill, even to the point of considering voting against it. This second response feels betrayed by the pragmatism, even as I understand how it may be necessary.

But thank you very much for the extended reply....I'll keep thinking about it, and look for further comments by your other very perspective readers.