Politics & Policy

The Relevance of Community Organizing

Do you know what Obama did in Chicago? He talked about change!

St. Paul – If National Review Online could be remembered for contributing one thing to the 2008 presidential election, it might as well be this line from Sarah Palin’s speech: “I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a ‘community organizer,’ except that you have actual responsibilities.”

That devastating line that cuts to the heart of Barack Obama’s lack of experience for the presidency was cribbed from NRO’s own Jim Geraghty. The line was so effective that a day later it’s still causing conniption fits among the Left.

At The New Republic, Sacha Zimmerman took offense. “Shouldn’t Republicans, along with all Americans, encourage all citizens to be community organizers?” Zimmerman said. “Say community organizing isn’t enough of a qualification if you must, Ms. Palin, but mocking this noble form of leadership in front of people who will presumably be doing the kind of community organizing you’ll soon rely on — getting out the vote, manning the polls, and registering non-voters — just seems wrong.”

No, what seems wrong is that anyone running for president would pad their résumé by describing one of their indeterminate career periods with the bizarre left-wing appellative “community organizer.” Obama’s time working in Chicago housing projects following his college years may have been driven by noble intentions. It’s just that noble intentions aren’t a qualification to be president.

Obama spent three years in housing projects in Chicago and — according to his book, Dreams of My Father — even he couldn’t explain what he was doing. “When classmates in college asked me just what it was that a community organizer did, I couldn’t answer them directly,” Obama wrote. Indeed, who could say what a community organizer does? The Obama campaign sent out an e-mail after the fact: “With the nation watching, the Republicans mocked, dismissed, and actually laughed out loud at Americans who engage in community service and organizing.” That misses the point. Palin and Giuliani didn’t mock people who work for the betterment of their communities. They mocked Obama for embracing the vague title of “community organizer,” which might as well be the political equivalent of “I’m working on a screenplay.” It also doesn’t help that “organizer” is essentially a morally neutral term and to the extent it’s political it evokes shades of left-wing labor politics.

So Obama himself never did try to define what it was he was actually doing as a community organizer in any meaningful way. “Instead, I’d pronounce on the need for change,” he continued. “Change in the White House, where Reagan and his minions were carrying on their dirty deeds. Change in the Congress, compliant and corrupt. Change in the mood of the country, manic and self-absorbed. Change won’t come from the top, I would say. Change will come from a mobilized grass roots.”

As Ronald Reagan might say, there he goes again — talking about change. But what did he change? In three years as a community organizer, Obama helped set up an employment office for unemployed steel workers and helped get some asbestos removed from housing projects. Again, these are noble and decent things to have done but it’s not exactly a significant record of accomplishment you can uphold as proof of your executive experience and ability to bring “change in the White House.”

Yet, Palin’s implicit question about what is the true value of Obama’s experience as a community organizer — relative to his presidential ambitions and the media’s collective decision to portray her as wet-behind-the-ears political rube — prompted media oppobrium. Time’s Joe Klein defended Obama’s work as a community organizer saying, “It was, dare I say it, the Lord’s work — the sort of mission Jesus preached.”

Jonathan Martin of The Politico did Klein one better, posting the “Democrat reader email of the day,” which read “Mrs. Palin needs to be reminded that Jesus Christ was a community organizer and Pontius Pilate was a governor.”

Well, that sounds like a “sharp rejoinder” in the words of The New Republic — provided you know nothing about the Bible. If you’ve read the good book, you know the analogy renders a bit too much unto Caesar in calling Jesus a “community organizer.” And why is it that Obama supporters find it so easy to compare their candidate to Jesus Christ? Not only does The One’s political experience compare favorably with the GOP’s vice-presidential nominee, it somehow stacks up well against the redeemer of mankind.

But Obama’s defenders were just getting warmed up. Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights dared to say that Obama’s experience here shouldn’t be denigrated, because the “United States has had a long and proud history” of community organizing from mere mortals such as Ben Franklin and Martin Luther King Jr. Barack Obama’s actual accomplishments amount to diddly squat when compared to, say, creating fire departments or the Civil Rights Act, but that is a secondary concern to placing him in this proud historical tradition.

Blogger Ezra Klein saw the line in a different way. “But look, let’s call a spade a spade: When Giuliani sneered about community organizers on the ‘South side’ of Chicago, it’s pretty clear what he was saying: Barack Obama spent his time rabble-rousing among black people,” he said. The only thing clear here is that when Klein isn’t embarrassing himself by breathlessly suggesting that Obama is “the word made flesh,” he never misses an opportunity to baselessly cry racism when someone attacks his personal savior.

And while the press corps and other Obama boosters leaped to his defense, nowhere in their indignation did they note that Palin’s attack was a response to Obama’s unwarranted criticism of her. Senator Obama repeatedly referred to Palin in her previous capacity as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, without even acknowledging she’s a sitting governor with a record of notable accomplishments in her current (if briefly held) position.

But more than that, the suggestion that her experience as mayor of a town of 10,000 people was to be dismissed was rich with irony. Obama’s résumé is so thin that his own campaign had repeatedly presented his three-year stint as a community organizer — with little to show for it — as vital political experience, rather than a relatively minor part of his biography that demonstrates his commitment to helping out those in need.

Is it not possible that during her stint as a small-town mayor, Palin improved as many or more lives as Obama during his stint as a “community organizer”? And if the case could be made that she did, wouldn’t that make trumpeting Obama’s idealistic but ineffectual stint as a “community organizer,” as if it were relevant job experience for the most powerful job in the world, look awfully stupid?

But more than that, the brilliance of Palin’s line is that it forces an actual comparison of their respective political backgrounds. The Obama campaign doesn’t want to argue the value of his experience on the merits, because if you do that, Obama suddenly becomes just another politician with few accomplishments hustling for your vote.

At which point it becomes obvious that Obama’s no messiah; in fact, he barely matches up with the former head of the PTA in Wasilla, Alaska. He’d be wise not to underestimate her again.

Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.


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