Politics & Policy

BetterTogether with Barack

Obama and the dinner-party crisis.

It might seem a bit ironic that Barack Obama, who had one of his campaign lowlights when he tried to bowl shortly before the Pennsylvania primary, had his views on community-building shaped by Harvard professor Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone.

One of the chapters of the new president’s life that has gone nearly completely unexamined is his participation in the Saguaro Seminar on Civic Engagement in America at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, a working group of three dozen political leaders and clergy Putnam led from 1995 to 2000.

#ad#Putnam established the Saguaro Seminar around the time he published a widely read article that eventually turned into the 2000 book. The Seminar aimed to “expand what we know about our levels of trust and community engagement and develop strategies and efforts to increase this engagement.” He included some voices that one could classify as right-leaning: former GOP Congressman Vin Weber and two former advisers to George W. Bush, Steven Goldsmith, and John DiIulio Jr. But most of the participants’ philosophies melded compassionate conservatism, communitarianism, and the small-ball what-can-government-do-for-you vision of Bill Clinton’s 1996 reelection campaign: columnist E. J. Dionne, James Wallis, former Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos, Harvard professor William Julius Wilson.

There has been heretofore no exploration of Obama’s role in the seminar and its conclusions; the only reference to Obama’s participation is one line in a Politico report noting that members called him “governor,” in anticipation of what they foresaw as a promising political career.

The group’s final report, titled “BetterTogether,” contains few shocking ideas or proposals. But what is surprising, looking back, is how the participants perceived a near-apocalyptic sense of social disorder and distrust during a time period historians are likely to describe as a near-golden age. The dot-com boom of the late 1990s fueled record economic growth, welfare reform was establishing itself as the most effective policy change of the decade, and despite ominous al-Qaeda attacks, Americans believed that they were at peace.

And yet to hear the Saguaro participants, American society was a half-step away from Mad Max: “We are fast building two kinds of walled societies: gated communities and prisons”; “our civic infrastructure collapsed.” Television is described as “a death ray for civic life.” At times the report almost veers into self-parody. “Periodically, throughout our history, we have had an unemployment crisis. Now, amid unparalleled prosperity, we have an employment crisis.” We are told, with a straight face, that an illustration of the national breakdown is that “the number of times per year that Americans entertain friends at home has dropped by 45 percent since the mid-1970s.”

For epic problems like the Dinner Party Crisis, the scale of the proposed solutions is vast, as well: “We need nothing less than a sustained, broad-based social movement to restore civic virtue and civic participation in America.” The report’s authors declare that “massive changes in citizens’ attitudes and behavior will be necessary.” What’s more, “Every institution must make building social capital a principal goal or core value.”

Really? One might think that a hospital’s principal goal should be to heal sick people, a school’s principal goal should be educating students, and a police department’s principal goal must be to catch and incarcerate criminals.

The report’s recommended solutions are the unenlightening jumble that is typical of committee work. The 100 acts listed in the section “Changing the Wind–100 Things You Can Do To Build Social Capital” range from the innocuous (“donate blood,” “attend PTA meetings” ) to the unhelpfully vague (“Volunteer your special skills to an organization”) to the new age (“Be real. Be humble. Acknowledge others’ self-worth.”).

Several of the suggestions indicate that “building social capital” means dishing up raps on the knuckles for those who are cynical about government, no matter how justified their skepticism is: “When somebody says ‘government stinks,’ suggest they help fix it”; “Businesses: invite local government officials to speak at your workplace”; “Participate in political campaigns”; “Stand at a major intersection holding a sign for your favorite candidate.”


Perhaps this is one of the things that happens when you define your problem so broadly. Americans’ ability to balance work and family, their trust of their neighbors, their time spent commuting, how much they donate to charity, their willingness to obey traffic signals, and their incessant talking on cell-phones are all areas of concern, but some of these warrant national leaders’ attention and some are more fit as fodder for a few minutes’ attention from Andy Rooney at the end of 60 Minutes.

One of two aspects that ought to furrow our brows the most are the sections of the report that give effusive praise to various small groups whose impact is debatable. Obama was one of two Saguaro participants from Chicago; the other was Rev. Bliss Browne–founder and president of Imagine Chicago, described as “an organization which catalyzes intergenerational urban connections and harnesses civic imagination as a resource for innovative community building.”

#ad#We can probably credit Obama and Browne for why the report frequently cites obscure groups in Chicago as doing Putnam’s holy work: a “Chicago-based theater company whose works explore racial and cultural divisions in the South”; “Witness the runaway success of the Jesse White Tumblers, a Chicago acrobatics group that recruits youths from the city’s roughest housing projects and provides them with a positive alternative to gangs”; Lot 37, a tent filling an undeveloped lot with a “summer-long program of visual arts activities for young people that pays the kids, as apprentice workers, with job training funds.”

At that time, as a state legislator, Obama was directing millions in state grants to small groups like these, and many were doing genuinely noble work. But when millions were getting doled out, it was easy to see some amounts steered to standard back-scratching and corruption: $75,000 to a Chicago social-service organization led by Michelle Obama’s cousin; $100,000 to a former Obama campaign volunteer to build a botanic garden that never got built; $100,000 to improve the community center run by controversial Fr. Michael Pfleger; $200,000 to a venture-capital fund linked to the Rev. Jesse Jackson; and, most spectacularly, $87 million in government grants, loans, and tax credits to Tony Rezko’s company to rehabilitate 1,000 public-housing apartments–where the work was left unfinished and the buildings’ accelerating decay made them uninhabitable.

As with Obama’s oft-cited but rarely examined community-organizing days, we are asked to assess the value of these efforts by their good intentions, not by what results they actually achieve.

The other troubling aspect is that the Obama of a decade ago, like the Obama of today, is so in love with this mythical ideal of “community” that there’s no sign he or anyone else at the seminar stopped to think if everything really is “BetterTogether.” The report’s legislative agenda is meager, but it backs the “mandatory volunteerism” of requiring every student in every grade at every school to participate in community service and declares that businesses “should provide tangible, meaningful opportunities and rewards for employees, departments, divisions, and branch offices to become socially and civically engaged.” Churches, arts programs, local government–all of them are to be reoriented to make “civic engagement” their top priority. A strong sense of community is swell, but the Saguaro recommendations aim to hammer all aspects of American society into serving that cause.

If an Obama administration does enact that agenda, we can rest assured that the national Dinner-Party Crisis will finally be addressed.

Jim Geraghty writes the Campaign Spot blog on National Review Online.

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