The Corner

Obama the Organizer

The new issue of NR came out Friday, and the cover is my story on Barack Obama’s years as a community organizer in Chicago. Obama often cites his time as an organizer, from 1985 to 1988, as part of the experience that qualifies him to be president. But many people, including me, have wondered what that means. What did Obama do as a community organizer? And what in that experience helps qualify him to be president?

I spent some time in Chicago last month talking to the people who worked with Obama there. Everyone I interviewed, from the man who hired him, to a fellow organizer, to a pastor allied with Obama, to the women Obama trained to be “leaders” in his group — they all told me they have high regard for Obama and support him for president.

But when it comes to lasting accomplishments, Obama’s list isn’t very long. His greatest hits seem to have been a successful effort to convince the city of Chicago to locate a jobs placement office on the far South Side and his part in a drive to push the city to clean asbestos out of a housing project in the same area.

What else? A few other things; nothing big. As I looked around, I got the sense that Obama’s greatest talent was his ability to convince people to believe that it was possible to change things, not to actually bring about much change himself. The whole idea of change lay at the heart of Obama’s decision to go to Chicago, as he wrote in his 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father:

When classmates in college asked me just what it was that a community organizer did, I couldn’t answer them directly. Instead, I’d pronounce on the need for change. 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.

Substitute “Bush” for “Reagan” and you’ll get a pretty good picture of Obama’s campaign today, which suggests that Obama has been selling the message of change since his organizer days. His gift, then and now, was to convince people to believe in him, something that came through quite clearly when I talked to a woman named Loretta Augustine-Herron, who worked closely with Obama during his time in Chicago and who very kindly drove me around the Altgeld Gardens housing project on the far South Side. Augustine-Herron told me how the man who hired Obama, an organizer named Jerry Kellman, brought Obama to meet her before he was officially hired. Obama, not long out of college, didn’t have much experience to qualify him to be an organizer. But he was black — a threshold qualification for this particular job — and he seemed able almost to work magic on those he encountered. “He didn’t have experience,” Augustine-Herron told me, “but he had a sensitivity that allowed us to believe that he could do that job.”

The whole story is out on NR Digital now, which means, of course, if you don’t already subscribe in one way or another, you should.


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