Barack Obama and the Case of the Unemployed Steelworkers

by Reihan Salam

In light of the renewed Bain Capital controversy, a comment by Jim at Ann Althouse’s blog included a passage from Byron York’s 2008 National Review article on Barack Obama’s time as a community organizer. A brief passage describes Obama’s efforts on behalf of unemployed steelworkers:

New to Chicago, Obama set about conducting dozens of one-on-ones, that is, individual interviews with South Side residents in which he tried to discover which issues were most important to them. “You have to understand a person’s self-interest — that’s Alinsky’s terminology,” Mike Kruglik, an organizer who worked with Kellman and Obama, told me. “What’s happened to that person in his or her life? Where are they going? Why are they going there? What are they really passionate about?”

After the initial interviewing, Obama went to work on a number of projects.

The long-term goal was to retrain workers in order to restore manufacturing jobs in the area; Kellman took Obama by the rusted-out, closed-down Wisconsin Steel plant for a firsthand look. But the whole thing was a bit of a pipe dream, as the leaders soon discovered. “The idea was to interview these people and look at education, transferable skills, so that we could refer them to other industries,” Loretta Augustine-Herron told me as we drove by the site of the old factory, now completely torn down. “Well, they had no transferable skills. I remember interviewing one man who ran a steel-straightening machine. It straightened steel bars or something. I said, well, what did you do? And he told me he pushed a button, and the rods came in, and he pushed a button and it straightened them, and he pushed a button and it sent them somewhere else. That’s all he did. And he made big bucks doing it.”

That, of course, was one of the reasons the steel mill closed. And it became clear that neither Obama nor Kellman nor anyone else was going to change the direction of the steel industry and its unions in the United States. Somewhere along the line, everyone realized that those jobs wouldn’t be coming back. 

So Obama looked for new opportunities. 

One assumes that President Obama and Vice President Biden wouldn’t share Loretta Augustine-Herron’s characterization of the challenges involved in retraining steelworkers, at least not now. But it does seem as though a young Barack Obama was exposed to the deep structural challenges facing the U.S. steel industry, and that he understood why certain kinds of routine manufacturing work had migrated outside of the United States. 

This reminds me of Stephanie Cutter’s recent remarks regarding the “lessons and values” Mitt Romney learned from investing in and working to turn around domestic manufacturing firms in distressed industries. Among other things, Romney learned that firing people was acceptable as part of a broader effort to put a business enterprise on a sustainable footing and that some businesses fold in the face of intense competition. 

But what are the lessons and values that Barack Obama learned from having encountered distressed steelworkers with limited transferable skills? From the above anecdote, which I’m sure is incomplete in many respects, it seems he learned that at least some of the problems these steelworkers in adapting themselves to a changing labor market were stubborn and intractable, and that it at some point made sense to pursue other opportunities for effecting social change, e.g., building one’s own profile, pursuing an academic career, and running for higher office. 

I’m grateful to Stephanie Cutter for introducing this framework of lessons and values. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.