Category Archives: Barack Obama

Obama faces the new organizers

Peter Dreier has a great piece on President Obama’s background as a community organizer. The priceless photograph above comes from Dreier’s article. I also explore this aspect of the president’s past in We are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For, pp. 152-161.

Dreier writes, “But Obama seemed to abandon his affinity for organizing soon after he entered the White House. He tried to be a consensus-builder, eschewing conflict, even with those in Congress and in corporate boardrooms who pledged not only to defeat his policy agenda but also to undermine his legitimacy as president.”

Indeed, Obama’s consensus-building contrasts with the confrontational style of community organizing that he employed on occasion in Chicago in the 1980s and that he faced recently when he met a group of young leaders in the White House. As movingly recalled by Phillip Agnew, the White House meeting was a frank exchange between “a community in active struggle against state sanctioned killing, violence and repression” (on one side) and the leader of that very state, the former community organizer turned POTUS (on the other). Agnew concludes:

We walked out of that meeting unbought and unbowed. We held no punches. There was no code-switching or bootlicking; no concessions, politicking or posturing. The movement got this meeting. Unrest earned this invite, and we can’t stop.

If we don’t get what we came for, we will shut it down. President Obama knows that and we know it. No meeting can stop that.

I’d only complicate the contrast in one way. Obama was trained in confrontational tactics but also in relational organizing. Frank C. Pierson, who is an Industrial Areas Foundation organizer in Durham, NC, says that the IAF network’s “relational culture is characterized by positive valuation of relationships themselves as well as the capacity for collaborative action they generate.  Relationships tested in the crucible of public action when sustained over time can forge lasting political friendships within, between and outside IAF organizations.” Scott Reed, the executive director of the PICO organizing network, told me recently that he and his colleagues strive “to develop relational capital.” The veteran organizer Gerald Taylor recalls the reason that a Maryland IAF affiliate called BUILD defeated the NRA:

Thousands of people were talked with and listened to. Questions about the nature of community and the relative merits of a law that was not perfect were discussed. In short, people were taken seriously as citizens.

BUILD members met with Senator Paul Sarbanes, who asked them their “demands.” “‘None,’ they responded, to the senator’s amazement. ‘We came here to find out what your interests are: Why you ran for this office and what you hope to achieve.”

Relational organizers do not value all relationships equally, but they treat the development of a new relationship as an asset even if it involves an adversary. This is why the relational approach is sometimes called “broad-based” (as opposed to “issue-based”) organizing. Obama likewise observed in 2007 that “politics” usually means shouting matches on TV. But “when politics gets local, when the person talking to you is your neighbor standing on your front porch, things change.” In that speech, he called for “dialogues” in every community on Iraq, health care, and climate change.

Note that the diagram that a younger Barack Obama is drawing on the chalkboard (above) is a relationship map. It shows problematic relationships among banks, utilities, and other powerful entities; but if he applied relational organizing techniques, he was about to add citizen groups to the same diagram. After all, he wrote at length as a young organizer about the “internal productive capacities, both in terms of money and people, that already exist in communities.” He was, in fact, a practitioner of Asset Based Community Development, which emphasizes the power and resources already present in marginalized neighborhoods.

Confrontation is not incompatible with relationship-building or a positive assessment of community assets. Any robust movement will combine these approaches and will debate the relative importance of each at every moment. I believe that confrontation is necessary and helpful at the current juncture. But I think that Obama has used something of a mix himself, as president. And when he has elected to build consensus, that too comes from his experience as a community organizer.

*Frances Moore Lappe, “Politics for a Troubled Planet” (1993), pp. 175-6

the Left between Obama and Hillary Clinton

Let’s define “the Left” as thinkers and organizational leaders who are open to voting for Democratic candidates but generally critical of the party, holding more radical policy objectives than elected Democrats do.

The Left has had plenty of reason to criticize the Obama Administration: the president does not fully share its the goals and priorities. I have tended to defend the administration, both because my objectives are closer to the President’s and also because I think he has consistently accomplished more than they have given him credit for. I detect a tendency to overestimate the importance of presidential rhetoric (Obama’s being relatively moderate) while overlooking concrete and tangible victories for poor people. (See, e.g., “Obama Cares. Look at the Numbers” by But the president and his appointees have also at times given unnecessary offense to the Left; and the Left is entitled to be critical of an administration that is not actually Leftist.

Now the Obama Administration has just two years to run, and the overwhelming favorite to lead the Democratic Party is Hillary Clinton. She is her own person and should not be automatically equated with her husband. But I believe that both the Clinton presidency and Hillary Clinton’s own record in the Senate and the State Department suggest that she would stand at least somewhat to the right of Barack Obama. I have therefore always found Clinton nostalgia among members of the Left very strange and discomfiting. You can criticize the current president from the Left, but it seems completely mistaken to prefer his Democratic predecessors, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.

Opinion is beginning to shift. For instance, from 2009 until a few months ago, Paul Krugman was generally a strong critic of the president. I yield to Krugman on all economic matters but argued (e.g., in the Huffington Post, 2010) that his political analysis was off. In any case, it interests me he seems to have revised his estimation. For instance,

One explanation may simply be that more data is in. It was unclear ca. 2010–and seemed unlikely–that the Obama Administration was advancing progressive policy goals, but now we can see that progress was made. In that case, Paul Krugman’s change of tone is the result of having more information.

Meanwhile, we are beginning to see signs that Hillary Clinton will tangle with the Left. According to the Amy Chozick in the New York Times, “Without discussing her 2016 plans, she has talked to friends and donors in business about how to tackle income inequality without alienating businesses or castigating the wealthy. That message would likely be less populist and more pro-growth, less about inversions and more about corporate tax reform, less about raising the minimum wage and more long-term job creation, said two people with firsthand knowledge of the discussions.”

Months ago, Ben White wrote in Politico:

“The darkest secret in the big money world of the Republican coastal elite is that the most palatable alternative to a nominee such as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas or Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky would be Clinton, a familiar face on Wall Street following her tenure as a New York senator with relatively moderate views on taxation and financial regulation.  … ‘If it turns out to be Jeb versus Hillary we would love that and either outcome would be fine,’ one top Republican-leaning Wall Street lawyer said over lunch in midtown Manhattan last week. ‘We could live with either one. Jeb versus Joe Biden would also be fine. It’s Rand Paul or Ted Cruz versus someone like Elizabeth Warren that would be everybody’s worst nightmare.’ … Most top GOP fundraisers and donors on Wall Street won’t say this kind of thing on the record for fear of heavy blowback from party officials, as well as supporters of Cruz and Rand Paul. Few want to acknowledge publicly that the Democratic front-runner fills them with less dread than some Republican 2016 hopefuls.  …

And the Left is beginning to get openly restive. According to Alexandra Jaffe in The Hill,  “'[A] Clinton presidency undos [sic] all our progress and returns the financial interests to even more prominence than they currently have,’ Melissa Byrne, an activist with the Occupy Wall Street movement, said in a November 2013 email.” The same article quotes the political consultant Mike Lux, who says, “I also came to know how close she was to the pro-Wall Street forces inside the administration and out, and the downsides on foreign policy are all very real. So I will hesitate for a long time before jumping into her campaign.”

How will the Left respond to the Clinton campaign, especially considering that she is very popular among voters who consider themselves progressive and is the first woman to have a serious shot at the presidency? How will the Left manage if four years of a conservative Democrat follow eight years of a moderate Democrat? And how will the Left describe and use the legacy of Barack Obama in years to come?

I am not interested in these questions because of the potential impact on two individuals, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. I am concerned about the condition of the Left as a countervailing force in American politics. The near future will be a difficult time.

my Fox News piece on ObamaCare

In lieu of a substantive post here today, I’ll link to my own op-ed (on the somewhat unlikely venue of, entitled “ObamaCare and America’s youth — why lessons of 2014 will last a lifetime.” I argue that the big question is what ideological conclusion the Millennials draw from ObamaCare, because their fundamental political orientation will be set in their youth. If the Millennials decide that Obamacare was a fiasco, they’ll move right. If they conclude that it worked as designed, it will boost the technocratic center-left of Clinton and Obama. But they could decide that it was a tool for citizen groups to increase coverage and cut costs–a participatory democratic lesson. That would require that we tell a different story about ObamaCare and that we strengthen the actual participatory elements of the Act.

the president and the humanities

At a General Electric plant in Milwaukee last month, President Obama seemed to disparage one of the disciplines of the humanities:

“I promise you, folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree,” the president said. “Now, nothing wrong with an art history degree. I love art history. So I don’t want to get a bunch of emails from everybody. I’m just saying, you can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four-year college education, as long as you get the skills and the training that you need.”

After receiving a critical email from University of Texas art historian Ann Collins Johns, the president replied to her with a hand-written apology, shown below. It’s a polite and disarming note. I suspect the president immediately regretted his comment about art history and was looking for a chance to address it.

Especially given his note, I do not want to add criticism of the president, personally. However, the administration’s educational policy does favor the applied sciences and engineering over the humanities. Moreover, in his note, the president reinforces the idea that the humanities are basically about appreciating the higher things of life; they are aesthetic disciplines. He writes, “As it so happens, art history was one of my favorite subjects in high school, and it has helped me take in a great deal of joy in my life that I might otherwise have missed.”

One sees this equation of the humanities with beauty all the time. Just last week, in the Atlantic, Olga Khazan cited Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, and Paul Cézanne as examples of geniuses in “the humanities.” Very few people seem to understand that the humanities are scholarly disciplines aimed at understanding a wide range of human phenomena. They are not about making or appreciating beauty. (See my post on “what are the humanities?”)

I do believe that you can often enjoy a work of art much more if you understand it as the solution to problems of its own time. This is something that art historians can teach you. I have made this argument in relation to Memling and to the city of Venice, among other examples on this blog. Thus the president probably did come to enjoy art more when he studied art history. However, enjoyment is not the purpose of the discipline; we do not call it “art appreciation.” As long as people believe that the humanities are about enhancing pleasure, they will not consider them an important investment in tough economic times.

the president on citizenship: all rhetoric?

In all of his high-profile official speeches, President Obama makes sure to speak strongly and explicitly about active citizenship as the solution to our national problems. I like to highlight and analyze these passages because reporters always completely ignore them, treating them as mere throat-clearing. (See, e.g., my piece on “Taking the President Seriously About Citizenship” in Huffington Post.)

Last night was no exception. The president opened with examples of active citizens in both the public sector and the private sector: “Today in America, a teacher spent extra time with a student who needed it, and did her part to lift America’s graduation rate to its highest level in more than three decades. An entrepreneur flipped on the lights in her tech startup, and did her part to add to the more than eight million new jobs our businesses have created over the past four years.” He added, “it is you, our citizens, who make the state of our union strong.”

President Obama then contrasted constructive citizens with the dysfunctional political system in DC. In the middle of the speech, he returned to the citizenship theme with a series of anaphoric paragraphs: “Citizenship means … Citizenship means. … Citizenship demands a sense of common cause; participation in the hard work of self-government; an obligation to serve to our communities.”

The problem is a gap between this expansive notion of citizenship and the policy agenda. For example, in k-12 and higher education, many wonderful educators and administrators are busy teaching students to be active citizens and trying to make their institutions into more valuable elements of local civil society. They have some friends inside the Obama Administration’s Department of Education. But the education agenda that the president summarized was exclusively about aligning school and college to current job requirements:

Teachers and principals in schools from Tennessee to Washington, D.C. are making big strides in preparing students with skills for the new economy – problem solving, critical thinking, science, technology, engineering, and math.  …

We’re working to redesign high schools and partner them with colleges and employers that offer the real-world education and hands-on training that can lead directly to a job and career.  We’re shaking up our system of higher education to give parents more information, and colleges more incentives to offer better value, so that no middle-class kid is priced out of a college education.

(The information that prospective students are being offered is limited to the cost of a degree, the likelihood of graduation, and employment rates of graduates.)

To be sure, work is not separate from citizenship. The president was right to characterize private and public sector workers as citizens. “Through hard work and responsibility, we can pursue our individual dreams, but still come together as one American family to make sure the next generation can pursue its dreams as well.” Still, workers and future workers must learn about and discuss common social issues. That implies an explicit focus on civics in schools and colleges and opportunities for adult citizens to make decisions together. Those ideas were missing in the State of the Union and have been largely overlooked in the administration’s actual policymaking.