Barack Obama on community organizing (1988)

(en route to Chicago) I spoke over the weekend at the Barack Obama and American Democracy conference. For that purpose, I had re-read an essay that Obama published in 1988 in the journal Illinois Issues, entitled “Why Organize? Problems and Promise in the Inner City.”

My own basic framework: politics is at its best when diverse people discuss values and goals in settings that are moderated and structured but open-ended: not designed to achieve particular outcomes. Those same people should not just talk but also work, their action informing their talk and vice-versa. “Work” includes registering people to vote, tutoring kids, and building playgrounds but also administering programs, starting businesses, reporting news, and conducting research (among many other activities). In the process of talking and working, people form relationships that are themselves civic assets.

Although this trifecta of talk, work, and relationship-building is somewhat rare in the population as a whole, it is the goal and heart of a whole range of initiatives that include broad-based community organizing, collaborative governance, citizen journalism, service-learning, federal service programs, civic environmentalism, and many more. I have had the pleasure and privilege of working with those initiatives as a scholar/observer, formal evaluator, and/or board member for 20 years.

This was also the world of Barack and Michelle Obama, who were well known and respected leaders throughout those fields. Barack Obama had been personally involved in broad-based community organizing (as an organizer for the Gamaliel network in Chicago) and civic education. He had been trained by the inventor of asset-based community development, John McKnight, who wrote his recommendation letter for Harvard Law School. He had then served on several important boards or commissions in the field. He was one of only two politicians on Harvard’s “Saguaro Seminar: Civic Engagement in America” (founded by Robert Putnam to study and address the decline in social capital) and served Demos (a think tank that works on democratic reform) as a board member. Both he and his wife, Michelle Obama, were deeply involved with one AmeriCorps program that exemplifies combining work with deliberation, Public Allies (he as a member of the national board; she as director of its Chicago office) and with the civilian service movement in general. Michelle Obama had also worked on engaged university issues as Vice President for Community and External Affairs at the University of Chicago Medical Center. I had a privileging of meeting with her through Campus Compact, the national network of engaged universities.

Barack Obama summarized his view well in the 1988 article. He posed the question as “how black and other dispossessed people can forward their lot in America”? He argued that neither electoral empowerment (winning City Hall) nor economic self-sufficiency would work alone.

This is because the issues of the inner city are more complex and deeply rooted than ever before. Blatant discrimination has been replaced by institutional racism; problems like teen pregnancy, gang involvement and drug abuse cannot be solved by money alone.  …  In fact, much-needed black achievement in prominent city positions has put us in the awkward position of administering underfunded systems neither equipped nor eager to address the needs of the urban poor and being forced to compromise their interests to more powerful demands from other sectors.

Neither electoral nor purely economic strategies could address core problems if fundamental assets (people and capital) were leaving industrial cities. But community organizing could reveal and leverage the hidden assets still present in the inner city, the “internal productive capacities, both in terms of money and people, that already exist in communities.”  In doing so, Obama wrote, organizing “enables people to break their crippling isolation from each other, to reshape their mutual values and expectations and rediscover the possibilities of acting collaboratively—the prerequisites of any successful self-help initiative.” For organizers like Obama himself, the process “teaches as nothing else does the beauty and strength of everyday people.”

In the 2008 campaign, candidate Barack Obama movingly embraced his community organizer’s heritage, but his administration has generally (not completely) failed to honor that in practice. I have told that story before and repeat it–in a slightly different version–below the fold.

Candidate Obama drew on his civic organizer background in the 2008 election. Launching his candidacy in Springfield, IL on February 10, 2007, he said, “This campaign has to be about reclaiming the meaning of citizenship, restoring our sense of common purpose, and realizing that few obstacles can withstand the power of millions of voices calling for change. (Cheers.) … That is our purpose here today. That is why I’m in this race, not just to hold an office but to gather with you to transform a nation. (Cheers.) …”

Ten months later, as he campaigned to win the Iowa Caucuses, Senator Obama described his work as a community organizer: “In church basements and around kitchen tables, block by block, we brought the community together, registered new voters, fought for new jobs, and helped people live lives with some measure of dignity. … I have no doubt that in the face of impossible odds people who love their country can change it. But I hold no illusions that one man or woman can do this alone. … That’s why I’m reaching out to Democrats, and also to Independents and Republicans. And that is why I won’t just ask for your vote as a candidate; I will ask for your service and your active citizenship when I am President of the United States. This will not be a call issued in one speech or program; this will be a cause of my presidency.

The campaign was structured in ways that reflected Obama’s civic philosophy. Volunteers were encouraged and taught to share their stories, to discuss social problems, to listen as well as mobilize, and to develop their own plans. There was a rich discussion online as well as face-to-face. This deliberative style was particularly attractive to young, college-educated volunteers, who felt deeply empowered and who played a significant role in the election’s outcomes, especially in Iowa. (And without Iowa, Barack Obama would not be president.)

On his first day of office, the president issued a strong memorandum to the heads of all executive departments and agencies, entitled “Transparency and Open Government.” This memorandum said (in part):

Government should be participatory. Public engagement enhances the Government’s effectiveness and improves the quality of its decisions. … Executive departments and agencies should offer Americans increased opportunities to participate in policymaking and to provide their Government with the benefits of their collective expertise and information. …Government should be collaborative. Collaboration actively engages Americans in the work of their Government. Executive departments and agencies should use innovative tools, methods, and systems to cooperate among themselves, across all levels of Government, and with nonprofit organizations, businesses, and individuals in the private sector.

The new president also renamed the White House Office of Public Liaison the Office of Public Engagement.

In many ways, this moment–when a new president arrived in Washington from a lifetime of civic renewal work and used his very first executive order to announce “Government should be collaborative”–was the highlight of my professional work so far.

But not much has happened since to vindicate my enthusiasm. The Executive Order led to some concrete efforts to expand the amount of public data that’s available online. No cabinet agency has used civic engagement as a major strategy, although I was encouraged by a recent statement from the Dept. of Education.

The health care battle exemplifies the failure to connect the Obamas’ civic background to policymaking. Three strategies could have been tried:

1. Engage the grassroots Obama volunteers from the 2008 campaign as community organizers for health care reform, as Steve Teles and I had recommended during the campaign. (We argued that Obama was a better candidate than Hilary Clinton because he had an active base to promote policies). This would have been civic organizing with a leftward tilt.

2. Organize a nationally representative deliberation in which politically diverse citizens designed the health care bill. This would have been much more neutral approach, but experience suggests that Americans would have adopted a reform at least as liberal as what Congress chose. Instead, the Congressional “town meetings” of 2009 were travesties: Democrats proposing and defending their own bill to citizens who took turns stepping up to the mike and denoucning them.

3. Build an ongoing civic engagement process into the health care system after the bill passed. The administration’s support for Federally Qualified Health Centers (which have active community boards) was a small step in that direction, commendable but buried within a vast reform.

Instead, the Democrats let politicians, hill staff, experts, and lobbyists work out a bill that survived the congressional process–barely–without enthusiastic support from any outside groups. Even on the left, it was regarded suspiciously and contributed to the Democrats defeat in 2010.

Prominent liberal critics of the Obama campaign took the administration’s political struggles as evidence that a civic strategy had been tried and had failed. In a New Republic piece headlined, “Live By the Movement, Die By the Movement: Obama’s Doomed Theory of Politics,” the Princeton historian Sean Wilentz wrote:

Clearly, the hopes and dreams that propelled Obama to the White House are in disarray. The social movement politics that some of his most fervent followers ascribed to him—the idea of electing a ‘post-partisan’ president as the leader not of a nation or even of a political party but of a personalized social movement—has failed.

The two aspects of Obama’s philosophy that Wilentz believed had been repudiated were an alleged distaste for partisan politics and a belief that change derived from social movements instead of national leaders. Wilentz wrote,

Fundamental to the social movement model is a conception of American political history in which movements, and not presidents, are the true instigators for change. Presidents are merely reactive. They are not the main protagonists. Obama himself endorsed this conception constantly on the campaign trail, and has repeated it often as president, proclaiming that ‘real change comes from the bottom up.’

Just a few days later, in the New York Times, Krugman concurred.

In retrospect, the roots of current Democratic despond go all the way back to the way Mr. Obama ran for president. Again and again, he defined America’s problem as one of process, not substance—we were in trouble not because we had been governed by people with the wrong ideas, but because partisan divisions and politics as usual had prevented men and women of good will from coming together to solve our problems. And he promised to transcend those partisan divisions.

Instead, Krugman argued, the president should have explained why Republicans were “people with the wrong ideas” and liberal Democrats were right about economic policy. Communication was everything: “What Mr. Obama should have said… Mr. Obama could and should be hammering Republicans… There were no catchy slogans, no clear statements of principle…  The president ‘has the bully pulpit.’”

My diagnosis is just the opposite. Although candidate Barack Obama rightly diagnosed our problems as ones of process and culture and wisely unleashed a grassroots social movement to solve them, President Barack Obama tried to govern from the Oval Office, negotiating with—and sometimes angrily denouncing—conservative politicians. It is not that a social movement strategy failed but that it was never tried.

I would blame three factors: the resistance of elites in the Democratic party and progressive circles to decentralization and public participation; the failure of our movement to come forward with concrete policy proposals even when there were opportunities to lobby; and the weakness of grassroots support for such reforms.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.