Barack Obama: Community Organizer

People joke about President Obama’s abilities at eleven-dimensional chess. I think that Obama has a long-term strategy, more understandable than eleven-dimensional chess. I also think that it’s quite different from much of what passes for strategy in political Washington.

Obama came into office in January 2009 with an enormous number of problems facing the country. He had been dealing with the financial crisis since his election. That crisis was, in a way, the culmination of the financialization of the American economy, which, along with tax and other policy, had hollowed out prospects for the middle class. The country was stuck in two wars that had very little to do with its national interests. Other aspects of the “War on Terror” that damage the perception of the US abroad and damage civil liberties at home persisted long after any utility had disappeared. North Korea had demonstrated nuclear weapons, and Iran was engaged in pursuit of technology that could make nuclear weapons possible for them.

Perhaps the most difficult problem Obama faced, though, was an apathetic electorate and media that depicted that president as the only political actor in the country. Democracy can’t work without the participation of the people.

Obama would have seen that apathy before, as a community organizer. Poor communities are often demoralized or do not know how to fight for what they need. The organizer’s job is to get citizens active in helping themselves. This involves many things: educating citizens on their rights and ways to go about changing their circumstances, which would include the political process; and encouraging the citizens to take action on their own behalf.

That last is the trick to successful community organization. The members of the community must achieve their own successes; having an organizer do it for them is likely to deepen their feelings of incompetence. That was not what the columnists said Obama “must” do, whether that was cutting taxes or entitlements, or giving inspiring speeches; they emphasized the president as the initiator of action.

There are indeed some things that the president can do. Closing Guantanamo might have been one, but early moves in that direction made it obvious that public support would be necessary. In fact, public support is necessary for most of what the President does. Additionally, many of the things that columnists like to say the President “must” do are in fact the the business of Congress, whose members are more directly responsible to the voters.

Community organizing is usually done face to face. You talk to people, find out where they’re getting stuck, what their gripes are. Community organizing the whole nation is a real challenge. And Congress, although nominally an instrument of the people, also responds to monied interests that may not represent the people. Obama needed a two-pronged strategy: convince voters that they needed to become more active and turn Congress toward the voters. Obama and the people working for him knew that he had a significant majority of the voters on his side in both the 2008 and 2012 elections. That was a place to start.

Obama’s campaign contributions were largely from individuals, and the campaigns emphasized this. As president, Obama appeals to voters in his speeches to contact their congressional representatives. And, most importantly, he doesn’t present himself as the great solo problem-solver. Not the magic president landing his jet plane on the aircraft carrier to “Mission Accomplished.” Just trying to do his job, with your help.

Leaving the development of the health care bill up to Congress indicated that the President is not the only actor. Voters could work through their representatives to get what they wanted in the bill. It was up to Congress to do its job responsibly. The process was much messier than an imagined comprehensive bill dropped from the President’s Office onto Congress and then voted on.

An important part of a community organizer’s job is not to act when others should. When they act, they feel empowered, they learn, and they are ready to do more. The conventional wisdom, however, was of a president presenting bold initiatives to Congress and rallying the nation with inspiring speeches. So there was much criticism of Obama for not “taking the initiative.”

That conventional wisdom was also unsound politically. A strong stand, particularly in the face of stated determined Republican opposition, would merely solidify that opposition.  If the people are behind a bill, it is harder for the Republicans to oppose them without looking bad.


I became responsible for managing environmental cleanups in an organization where “delegating up” was standard practice. One delegates up by acting as if one doesn’t know how to approach a problem or by simply ignoring it. It’s like the inability of husbands to comprehend the operation of the washing machine. For it to fully take hold, the managers have to be willing to step in a little too eagerly, like that activist president of the conventional wisdom.

We had to assess what needed to be done and plan the work, let contracts, make sure the cleanup was done correctly, assess whether what was done met state laws for health protection, and write a report that would be part of the legal record of compliance. The team included samplers, engineers, statisticians, chemists, and technical writers.

I laid out the work and priorities in the first few meetings with team leaders. There was not much response.

That lack of response is unnerving. If the team wasn’t doing what they were supposed to do, maybe the project wouldn’t get done. There was no way I could do everything myself, but the temptation to pick up the slack was enormous. I gritted my teeth and did my part of the job, nothing more. Talked to team members about the project. Then one day one of them asked some questions and made a suggestion in a meeting. And others began to respond.


Mobilizing the people was not Obama’s only task. Dealing with the dysfunction in Congress was necessary as well.

Democrats in Congress were badly split. The Blue Dogs could not be expected to vote a party line, and the rest were thoroughly cowed. Republicans had been charging toward extreme rightwing territory for a long time. What had been centrist or even Republican policies a few decades earlier were now far on the left.

Civil political discourse was badly damaged by rightwing talk radio and lazy mainstream media, a large segment of which checked in with the Drudge Report every morning. The journalistic standard was to report the controversy, meaning that both sides got equal time, no matter how crazy, no matter how few people supported one of them. This greatly favored rightwing extremism.

A straightforward attack on rightwing desires to disassemble government would throw gasoline on the rightwing fires. The citizens that Obama wanted to mobilize would be frightened off.

A route to the high ground was open. The media admired bipartisan initiatives. Polls showed that large numbers of citizens wanted Congress to find a way to work together for the good of the country. So Obama would do everything he could to find bipartisan solutions for the country. He offered Republican-leaning solutions to Republicans and then was willing to split the difference, and split the difference again. The ACA and New START Treaty passed, along with a long list of other achievements. He used executive actions where necessary and desirable, ending the war in Iraq and withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. He allowed Congress to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

He didn’t crow about his successes but quietly and carefully worked with Congress for bipartisan solutions. Because citizens wanted cooperation and bipartisanship, he built credibility and confidence, a base against which Republican intransigence came to appear more and more unreasonable.

By 2010, they were explicit: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said that their primary goal was to make President Obama a one-term president. Nothing else mattered, not even the good of the country. They didn’t offer alternatives, just ending this presidency.

Republicans have been setting up their internal incentives to favor a continuing march to the right. They have been protected by the media bubble of Fox News and talk radio, which cheer the march on. They have used their political power within the states to redistrict in their favor. But they came to a point of ideology some time ago that most of the country is very uncomfortable with. As the Republicans of Indiana found out, their long-time senator, Richard Lugar, may be unacceptable to the party, but Richard Mourdock, the Tea Party’s favorite, was unacceptable to the state’s voters. This dynamic was ripe for exploitation by President Obama.

The strategy here is simple. Present Republicans with a reasonable deal, sometimes woven out of earlier Republican ideas now unacceptable to an ever more extreme party. Although the media liked to say that “both sides” were being intransigent or that “both sides” had virtue in their positions, it eventually became evident to the public that one side was less reasonable than the other. As Obama took the more reasonable ground, a strategy of unthinking opposition drove the Republicans to ever more ridiculous extremes. Thus, Mourdock was one of their candidates in the 2012 election telling women that rape was their lot in life. And now Republicans loudly object to the nomination of a moderate Republican as Secretary of Defense.

Like moving the public to greater involvement, this strategy could not be expected to bear fruit immediately. It’s been four years.


His reelection made Obama the most popular President since Dwight Eisenhower. More popular than the right’s idealized Ronald Reagan. More political capital than what George Bush gloated over. And his popularity is increasing since the election. (Time/CNN. NBC News/WSJ. WaPo/ABC News.) The polls are in Obama’s favor or moving that way on the big issues. Raising the debt ceiling. Gun control. Immigration. Climate change. Congressional job approval is at an all-time low, and Republicans are taking the blame.

Obama no longer has to worry about reelection and, with that public support, can propose bold initiatives. Three times since the election, John Boehner has chosen to violate the Hastert Rule, that bills can be brought to the House floor only if a majority of Republicans will vote for them: the fiscal cliff bill, aid for victims of Hurricane Sandy, and delaying the debt ceiling fight passed the House with majorities composed of Republicans and Democrats.

In his first four years, Obama has been reasonable to what some consider the point of unreasonableness. He has built his reputation and popular support with that reasonableness. This, and the very favorable election and poll results, is now be the basis for bolder action, which we are beginning to see.

Obama is taking back the rhetoric that has been appropriated by the right. In his remarks on Sandy Hook and his inaugural address, he spoke powerfully of faith and God. In his speech announcing his gun control initiative, he spoke of the rights of the victims mass shootings being abridged. “Liberal” is beginning not to sound so bad.

A task force on gun control headed by Vice President Joe Biden quickly reported, and Obama has signed 23 executive orders relating to gun control. Action is taking place on state and city levels, empowered people acting democratically. New York has passed a strong gun control bill already, and initiatives are under way on gun control in ColoradoMaryland, and other states. Gun buy-backs are springing up.

The immigration bill will be done all at once, not spread out so that the Republicans can nibble it down.

Since the election, the Republicans have been in such disarray that it’s tempting to think that the party might split, and that Obama can use this to his and Democrats’ advantage. Certainly his second inaugural speech laid out a clear agenda and came close to taunting in places.

The Republican Party was born out of the fight over slavery. The Democrats wouldn’t face up to it, but the Whigs were worse. A strong anti-slavery faction and businessmen facing unfair labor competition had nowhere to go. Nothing in today’s America is of the magnitude of the fight over slavery, which had simmered since 1776. Nor is there a faction of the strength and fierceness of those opposing slavery. Today’s Republicans will survive, although their way forward is not clear. It is likely to be something like what Bill Clinton accomplished with the Democratic Party in the 1990s.

Until then, President Obama is in charge. The Republican House will occasionally give some trouble, and the Senate is trying to decide if majority rule is a good thing. But the people are becoming active, and the narrative is moving in their direction.

Good job, community organizer!


Cross-posted at Phronesisaical.

This post was read 235 times.

About author View all posts

Cheryl Rofer

25 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Thanks for this, Cheryl – a good read although an explanation that is far more optimistic about Obama’s presidency and his planning abilities than I’m inclined to be. I suppose my misgivings really boil down to: the trouble with all this is its essentially unverifiable though, isn’t it? If this is Obama’s actual multi-dimensional/community organizer game, then it actively hurts his game if he admits openly what he’s doing. So while it could be his game, it could also be a concatenation of incidents – and in that case Occam’s Razor should apply.

  • I’m trying to understand where this comes from:

    Perhaps the most difficult problem Obama faced, though, was an apathetic electorate and media that depicted that president as the only political actor in the country. Democracy can’t work without the participation of the people.

    As we all know, apathy was hardly present when Obama was elected. His margin showed it. The generalized revulsion of the Bush Regime showed it as well. People were quite clear in their desire to see the Bush agenda largely reversed. People also very much wanted to see the financial gangsters that crashed the global economy served justice. But it was not to be, as we’ve seen for four years now. Did the Occupy movement arise out of apathy? No. It arose as a reaction to a Do Nothing government and they were (and still are) persecuted as a result. Witness Aaron Shwarz, the best recent example of prosecutorial misconduct performed at the pleasure of the President.

    As far as public participation goes, the administration likes participation from those who support his authoritarian agenda, but has nothing but contempt for those who wished he had stuck to his “promises,” vague as they were. But he really prefers if people just go to sleep and not bother with the manner of their governance. That, after all, is the best way to codify things like Indefinite Detention, mass deportations, mass surveillance, a foreign policy committed to mass violence in as many countries as possible… and so on.

    You seem to be blaming the little people for not doing things only elected leaders can do, like prosecuting war criminals, closing GTMO and reining in the banks. Obama graduated university and with no experience was made Executive Director of a faith-based org who, as noted above, worked primarily to undermine the interests of the poor people he was organizing. Taken from that angle, it explains a great deal of his political methodology as a politician, since that’s basically what he’s been doing these last four years.

    As a former community organizer of the poor, one might be forgiven for thinking that mass unemployment, especially within poorer communities, might be a problem for this president. Indeed, one might think he’d find very problematic the fact that African-American families have lost 50% of their net worth since 2008. But one would be wrong to think so.

    • “Apathetic” may not be quite the right word there. “Not politically active, and electing hacks who were unwilling to support the party” is awfully long.

      Obama did receive a good margin of the vote in 2008, but I thought that the motivations were quite unclear. Reaction to the financial disaster, yes. The Occupy Movement arose in 2011, some time after Obama had been doing his community organizing. I’m tempted to attribute the Tea Party, in 2010, to community organizing as well. People were beginning to take their fate into their own hands.

      You’re attributing a number of attitudes and thoughts to Obama that I think we can’t know. It’s possible to interpret some of his actions and inactions to attitudes and thoughts, but the logical chain from one to the other is always loose. So rather than attribute attitudes and thoughts, I chose to look at a strategy he might be using and how changes since 2008 lined up with it.

      I specifically noted that there are some things that only elected leaders can do and used closing GTMO as an example. Obama did move toward that and found strong resistance from voters and Congress. Perhaps he could have taken a more draconian stand and forced things through, but that would have undermined everything else he might have accomplished.

      I’m not blaming anyone for anything, just observing that honey usually works better than vinegar.

      • Well, for what little it’s worth, I don’t really care about his attitudes, except as “attitude” emits from the White House and especially his surrogates. I care about agendas and policies, not personalities.

        As for “strategies he might be using,” those are implicit in his actions, as his strategic goals are furthered by those actions. When he let the bankers off the hook, he took action by making sure they wouldn’t be prosecuted. When his USAs (he did personally appoint them) persecuted dissent by criminalizing them by any means necessary, he was making a very loud statement. When he pushed for Indefinite Detention, declaring the entire planet a “battlefield” and even the power to arrest and imprison anyone, for any “reason” at all–in complete secrecy and without any accountability at all, rather like a dictator–he was being very specific in his “attitude” towards the Constitution and the Rule of Law more generally. His attitude and thoughts aren’t what will put me in some black hole to rot, but his policies will.

        Clearly, his goals are more important than his strategies and his goals are almost entirely nefarious. His strategies are merely the means to the ends. More importantly, however, it’s not just the administration. It’s the entire Democratic Party leadership at this point. Pelosi wants a “new era of austerity,” even though they all know what that means for the standard of living. Reid made sure the filibuster stays a tool of the Senate GOP. They all voted, almost unanimously, for last year’s and this year’s NDAA, which is an atrocity against the Constitution. Democrats in congress have also voted in lock step to criminalize dissent and protest. You can see where all this is heading, can’t you? If you can, I would love (I’m not being sarcastic) to see a liberal defense of these policies that makes an affirmative argument… which is to say without rationalizations or obfuscating the obvious.

        As for electing hacks, that’s more the Party’s fault than the voters, since the Party selects, recruits and manages everyone who gets on the ballot. Voters merely get to choose between two party hacks and that is the full extent of their involvement. That’s why it’s called, “Managed Democracy.” Seriously, does anyone really believe Obama would have gotten such a huge margin in 2008 if he had been even remotely honest about his agenda? If he had said, “I’m going to lower your standard of living while shoveling money at rich people and corporations,” would people have turned out for that?

        What if he said, “To all you activists out there, don’t even think about opposing my agenda from the left–from the Right is okay though–because I’ll send you to prison for a very long time and perhaps hound you to suicide.” I can just see how that would boost turnout!

        Or what if he said, “I’m going to approve a pipeline that will cause more climate change than any other single project out there. In addition, I’m going to push fracking until all your drinking water is poisoned.”

        At this point, that kind of honesty would be refreshing.

        So what are his goals? Those are in the policies and legislation he signs and he’s been very successful at getting what he wants. His strategy is largely based in propaganda, obfuscation, midnight votes in congress, secret backroom deals (Trans Pacific Partnership, right? SOPA, CISPA and whatever other acronyms we can think of) and gauzy speeches in which he panders with vague platitudes that distract people from what he’s actually doing when “on the clock,” by assuaging their feelings, if even briefly.

        • Your argument is getting a little convoluted. Yes, you can pick and choose actions that can be put together, if you ignore everything else, to prove your contentions. That probably could be done with your life, or mine, or anybody’s. You have to look at the whole thing.

          I included a link to Obama’s accomplishments, or you can google that phrase. Most of them should be very pleasing to liberals.

          What do you think those “nefarious goals” are?

          • Cheryl, just as you can spin too much of a tale out of a couple of people’s names and playing “Five Degrees of Kevin Bacon”, you can spin too little out of a sea of connections and fields of evidence. I’d personally say that Obama’s career shows nothing more nefarious than really, really wanting to play with the big political and money kids and that therefore he’s taken on a huge amount of the U.S. elite clique’s conventional wisdom. I don’t think he’s dissembling now, if he ever was – it is his conventional wisdom too.

          • Steve, that’s entirely possible, but as long as he does good things with it, I don’t care. I continue to think, out of my own experience, that nobody can accomplish what Obama has without a strategy, and I think the community organizer strategy best fits what I see.

  • “Obama no longer has to worry about reelection and, with that public support, can propose bold initiatives.”

    Does no one realize just how toxic the presumption behind that statement really is? It gets tossed off so easily, and yet it casually accepts that 50% of the time the chief executive of this nation is more concerned with his own reelection than he is with what is best for the nation itself. Given one-term presidents, it could be 100% of the time that such a state of affairs exists, and we are perfectly happy with that, accepting it as normal and usual.

    Obama himself even said words to the effect that he would rather be a great one-term president than a run-of-the-mill two-term president, and yet we knew that was nothing more than empty rhetoric. Of course his first term would be devoted primariraly to his own reelection and not to governance. Just another promise along the lines of closing Guantanamo.

    • I think that this

      it casually accepts that 50% of the time the chief executive of this nation is more concerned with his own reelection than he is with what is best for the nation itself.

      goes beyond what I was thinking when I wrote my statement. A first-term president has many things to worry about, and re-election is one of them. He (maybe someday she) probably can’t get his entire agenda done in one term. That was more true than usual for Obama, who took office in the middle of the worst financial disaster since the Great Depression and had to focus on that. My statement is probably open to both my interpretation and yours, Jayhawk, but mine is that it’s a factor, but probably not determinative.

      And since it’s come up twice now, implicitly in Jayhawk’s comment, I’ll repeat the list of Obama’s accomplishments from Washington Monthly. I think it’s pretty impressive and contains a large number of things that progressives should feel good about. Working towards re-election isn’t all bad: a list like this helps convince the voters. Looks like governance to me.

      Here’s a list I found yesterday of what he’s accomplished in twelve areas, along with possible goals for his second term.

      • Yeah, I’ve seen that WaMo list before. It’s stretching my credulity to call many of them Obama’s accomplishments either because they weren’t Obama’s doing or they weren’t accomplishments. Some are so factually flawed as to become fiction.

  • The Republican response to this is now apparent:

    Today’s Republicans will survive, although their way forward is not clear.

    Gerrymandering, and rigging the election system to their favor. Changing their policies – no.

        • Thanks, Matt!

          I suspect that this is what some of the Republicans would like to think is the way forward, but I doubt that the public will stand for it. There’s already strong pushback in Pennsylvania, and the more blatant the Republicans are, the more pushback there will be. I saw a headline today that if the Virginia system had been in place, Al Gore would have won. That’s enough to give even a Republican second thoughts.

          And Georgia Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss is retiring rather than be Tea Partied out of his job.

          A few Republican voices are being raised in favor of political rationality, but I think that the Republicans are likely to keep eating their own for a while longer. Which is fine with me.

          I wish I could recall in greater detail how the Democrats turned around. If we take Bill Clinton to be the turning point, then it was twenty years from McGovern to the turnaround. And McGovern’s loss was a real disaster. If Romney’s loss was equivalent in terms of party perceptions, then we’ve got twenty more years to watch the Republican circus.

          Those analogies never strictly hold, of course. But a Republican turnaround is not on the horizon.

  • Your comment above is unfair, dk. I’m sure Cheryl could real of a list of people who’s work she is familiar with that you’ve never heard of before. It’s a big world out there.

    I’ve read the piece you linked carefully and there’s absolutely no evidence there, just a game of “five degrees of Kevin bacon”.

  • it’s not the lack of knowledge, it’s the dismissal of it when given the opportunity.

    And it’s mighty hard to believe that when the likes of Allison Davis and Tony Rezko bring you to the ball, that you’re not gonna dance with them.

  • You guys never asked me the questions I was really worried about. So I’ll ask them.

    Q. What about Obama’s record on civil liberties? How does that fit in with a community organizer who is enabling people to better work for and within the community?

    A. This is something I simply can’t fit into the community organizer strategy. One of my difficulties is that I haven’t followed the civil liberties issues closely enough, partly because this is one of the things I just have a very hard time with emotionally, and partly because I think it’s something that others (emptywheel, Glenn Greenwald) are doing a pretty good job on. Nobody, including me, can follow every issue with that level of detail.

    But what I see is disturbing. It’s part and parcel of the “War on Terror” mentality, and the most optimistic interpretation I can come up with is that the politics haven’t been right to deal with it, as in the case of GTMO. There’s also the problem that presidents do like their powers. In the past few months, though, it has seemed that finally (finally!) there is starting to be some general perception that we can let up on the “War on Terror” and its side effects. I would like to believe that there will be movement toward a greater respect for this aspect of civil rights in Obama’s second term, but I am less optimistic about this than most of the other things I’d like to see.

    Q. You really haven’t presented a lot of proof for your thesis. How do you know that this is Obama’s strategy? (Steve touched on this, but didn’t put it quite this directly.)

    A. I don’t know, and there’s no way of knowing until the White House papers are declassified maybe twenty or thirty years from now. It’s a best guess on my part, based on a lot more evidence than I pulled together here. As I was writing this post, I kept wanting to pull more examples from news reports, either because I recalled a specific example or because I didn’t but had a general idea. I have included some examples because they are necessary to make my argument. There were a lot more that I could have included, but I had finite time and wanted to keep the structure of my argument relatively uncluttered.

    I do think, as I said in response to Steve upthread, that without a strategy, it’s just one damn thing after another, much harder to get results. I agree with him that the Washington Monthly list is padded, but even when you pare away the padding, there’s a significant number of seriously good achievements.

    When you consider how the media reported, so in favor of the conservatives, in 2008, it’s hard to see how Obama could have gotten the traction he has against an adamantine Republican Party without turning the public his way and getting them to participate more. That couldn’t happen by luck alone, although the Republican Party was more helpful with stuff like their inclination to blurt out their rape fantasies than Obama could ever have wished.

    And a bonus:

    Q. How does all this apply to foreign policy?

    A. I didn’t deal with foreign policy because I wanted to keep the post relatively short. I think community organizing does show up in Obama’s foreign policy (think “leading from behind”), but that’s another post.

Leave a Reply