The Corner

Obama: Still the Alinskyite

Here’s my take on the puzzle of Obama’s leadership style. Obama is still every inch the Alinskyite organizer. He talks about uniting, even as he deliberately polarizes. He moves incrementally toward radical left goals, but never owns up to his ideology. Instead, he tries to work indirectly, by way of the constituencies he seeks to manipulate.

“Leading from behind” is classic Alinskyite strategy. The idea is for the organizer to find out what the people he’s organizing want, give them enough of that to gain authority and control, then slowly and quietly push the group in his ideological direction, all the while making it seem as though the plan is what the people themselves have asked for. Obama used to literally lead from behind, by stage-managing his group’s protests from the back of the room, while the ostensible leaders took charge on stage. That is what Alinskyite organizers do.

Alinskyite organizers are tough when facing down the “enemy” (their word), but subtle, stealthy, and incremental when dealing with the members of their own group. Above all, they are never openly ideological. Everything is portrayed as pragmatism.

The trouble with Obama’s Alinskyite leadership style is that he’s trying to adapt it to the presidency, a role it was never designed for. When he tries classic Alinskyite polarization, he’s treating people he’s supposed to be leading as his enemies. When he tries to bring about leftist results under the guise of a neutral pragmatism, he disappoints his base, which desperately wants him to turn his eloquence to the task of persuading the country of their principles.

Obama is a bad negotiator because Alinskyite’s don’t negotiate, they intentionally polarize. As for their own groups, here they try to placate all factions and hide their own goals. That about describes Obama’s performance on the debt deal, which included a dollop of both of these stances.

I’ve laid it all out in Radical-in-Chief, from standard Alinskyite operating procedure, to Obama’s own use of it in Chicago, to the contradictions inherent in the attempt to apply these lessons to the presidency. As far as I can tell, Obama is still moving according to this Alinskyite template. In his own words, it was his true political education. It’s still the key to what he’s up to.

True, Alinksyite polarization and ideological reticence were never designed for the presidency. On the other hand, I doubt a president this leftist could ever have gotten elected without them. From Obama’s perspective, he’s already gotten more done on health care, and plenty of other issues, than any other Democrat in history. For Alinksyites, patience is all. Obama has at least an even chance of re-election. So despite the difficulties of his community-organizer-derived techniques, he’s likely to keep to them.

The Tea Party is a difficult problem for Obama. As David Bromwich notes today at the Huffington Post, Obama has almost never actually used the words Tea Party. The left yearns for Obama to take on the Tea Party in an overt ideological battle. But that is exactly the sort of thing Alinskyite organizers are forbidden to do. Bromwich asks why Obama has steadfastly refused to recognize the existence of the Tea Party. The answer is Saul Alinsky.

Stanley Kurtz — Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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