Barring the appearance of an Indonesian love child or a
prime-time meltdown it now appears all but certain that Barack Obama
will be the Democratic nominee. And if he manages to retire John
McCain, history will be made in another key respect. For the first
time, the people of the United States may actually elect a community
organizer to be president of the United States. Not only has Obama
worked as an organizer, he has written of that experience as something
that defines him politically—more than law school, more than being a
legislator, more than his diverse ethnic background, more than his life
in Hawaii or in Indonesia.
Having an organizer at the head of the
federal government is novel, to say the least. Before going into
politics, George W. Bush was a businessman who ran oil companies and
baseball teams into the ground. Bill Clinton was, in theory, a law
school professor, but in fact was a perpetual graduate student studying
how to be president. George H.W. Bush was a career bureaucrat, Ronald
Reagan was an actor, Jimmy Carter a peanut farmer. John F. Kennedy,
Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford were all Naval officers, although Ford
liked to stress that he was proudest to be called an Eagle Scout.
We’ve had bandleaders, haberdashers, generals, diplomats,
farmers and professors in the White House, but as far as I can tell,
we’ve never had an organizer. What would it be like? Very different, I
think. Most people don’t really understand what organizers do. But
knowing that could provide us an insight into the kind of president Obama would be.
It isn’t the same as being a leader. The
best organizers find and develop and, yes, even empower, other people
to lead. The organizer toils backstage, putting the pieces together,
nudging participants into new relationships, providing information and
strategy when needed. From what we know, Obama was a pretty good
organizer in this respect.
When he worked for the Developing Communities Project on
Chicago’s South Side, he wasn’t one to take credit for achievements.
Usually he gave the glory to grass-roots people who had lived with the
problems for years and who had joined with him to seek solutions. His
organizing experience with a faith-based group (similar to the Alliance
of Communities Transforming Syracuse) led to some modest changes in
housing conditions and to some environmental cleanups.
The biggest change, his former
colleagues recall, was in the young Obama. He learned to listen. In the
process of listening, the organizer begins to identify issues, then
formulate strategies, identify allies, assemble coalitions, and plan
and execute campaigns.
Obama is a rarity because so few
organizers go on to seek the limelight. Most are far more comfortable
behind the scenes. To be a candidate you have to wear nice clothes,
your hair has to be in place and you have to watch what you say.
Organizers can be impolitic if it serves a purpose; candidates have to
repeat the same thing over and over until their entourage is numb.
Organizers can be blunt in describing their adversaries; politicians
have to keep track of shifting alliances and remain on good terms with
folks whose interests they may threaten. And if you’re an organizer,
you can reach for that extra doughnut without a second thought.
Organizers have to be strategists. They can move lawyers
to assist them, mobilize opinion makers and journalists to support
their cause, cajole corporations into behaving better, remind
prosecutors of crimes lying beneath their noses and, with all the
pieces put together, stand by and let politicians take credit for the
change the organizer made inevitable.
Organizers also have to be pragmatists. Obama is
criticized as someone who speaks in lofty terms, but if his organizing
days really remain with him, as he says, then the rhetoric is only part
of the equation. Organizers know how hard it is to bring people
together and hold them together over the long haul of a campaign, and
in the face of incoming fire. They know how impotent a tool ideology
is. When working with real people to solve real problems, the labels
conservative or liberal don’t carry much weight. The organizer’s
imperative is always to find a real-world solution to the problem at
It is worth remembering that Obama’s tenure as an
organizer took place in Chicago when the steel industry was in the
midst of abandoning the city, leaving residents jobless and hopeless.
For a Rust Belt town like ours, having someone in the White House who
knows what it’s like to try to figure out how to revive the fortunes of
neighborhoods abandoned by industry might not be a bad idea.
Years ago a friend of mine who worked in the
Massachusetts Statehouse told me that while he was inside working with
the governor, his kid sister was out in the plaza leading a
demonstration of angry welfare recipients. He did not see their careers
as conflicting; in fact, it was just the opposite. He believed that the
community organizer and the political operative each played
complementary roles in the process of social change.
“You need to have good people both
inside the room and outside in the street,” he told me. It will be
interesting indeed if we have a president who has been on the outside
looking in peering out from behind the drapes of the Oval Office.