The Campaign Spot

A Fascinating, and Very Long, Look at Obama’s Early Career

Ryan Lizza has a gargantuan profile of Barack Obama in the new redesigned New Republic. Lots of interesting stuff, generally a positive profile but by no means the typical gushing about the “Obamessiah”, focusing on Barack Obama’s learning experiences as a community organizer and early political career. A few sections that stood out:

On this particular evening, Kruglik was debriefing Obama about his work when a panhandler approached. Instead of ignoring the man, Obama confronted him. “Now, young man, is that really what you want be about?” Obama demanded. “I mean, come on, don’t you want to be better than that? Let’s get yourself together.”
Kruglik remembers this episode as an example of why, in ten years of training organizers, Obama was the best student he ever had. He was a natural, the undisputed master of agitation, who could engage a room full of recruiting targets in a rapid-fire Socratic dialogue, nudging them to admit that they were not living up to their own standards. As with the panhandler, he could be aggressive and confrontational. With probing, sometimes personal questions, he would pinpoint the source of pain in their lives, tearing down their egos just enough before dangling a carrot of hope that they could make things better.

Self-help? Love it. Personal responsibility? Love it. Looking for one’s one flaws and insufficiently high expectations for oneself, instead of focusing blame elsewhere? Man, get me the X-Files poster; I want to believe.

By defining himself as a “community organizer” above all else, Obama is linking himself to America’s radical democratic tradition and presenting himself as an heir to a particular political style and methodology that, at least superficially, contrasts sharply with the candidate Obama has become. Community organizers see themselves as disciples of Thomas Paine and the colonists who dumped tea in Boston Harbor. Historically, they have revered the tactics of the labor militants of the 1930s, and they became famous in the ’60s for the political theater championed by Alinsky, illustrated most memorably by his threat of a “fart-in” at a Rochester, New York, opera house to bring attention to the Kodak company’s refusal to hire blacks.

Ahhh! He’s losing me! Note to aspiring presidents: Do whatever is necessary to avoid having the words “fart-in” appear in profiles of you.


Moving along…

But, while [the man who inspired Obama’s early community activism mentors] Alinsky is often viewed as an ideological figure–toward the end of his life, New Left radicals tried to claim him as one of their own–to place Alinsky within a taxonomy of left-wing politics is to miss the point. His legacy is less ideological than methodological. Alinsky’s contribution to community organizing was to create a set of rules, a clear-eyed and systemic approach that ordinary citizens can use to gain public power. The first and most fundamental lesson Obama learned was to reassess his understanding of power. Horwitt says that, when Alinsky would ask new students why they wanted to organize, they would invariably respond with selfless bromides about wanting to help others. Alinsky would then scream back at them that there was a one-word answer: “You want to organize for power!”

And with that, I sense a great disturbance in the force…

Galluzzo shared with me the manual he uses to train new organizers, which is little different from the version he used to train Obama in the ’80s. It is filled with workshops and chapter headings on understanding power: “power analysis,” “elements of a power organization,” “the path to power.” Galluzzo told me that many new trainees have an aversion to Alinsky’s gritty approach because they come to organizing as idealists rather than realists. But Galluzzo’s manual instructs them to get over these hang-ups. “We are not virtuous by not wanting power,” it says. “We are really cowards for not wanting power,” because “power is good” and “powerlessness is evil.”

Is anyone else hearing the Imperial March? Just me?

Where some of Alinsky’s disciples speak of his work with religious fervor, Obama maintained some detachment during these years. In his memoir, he gently mocked Marty Kauffman, the character based on Kellman (and a touch of Kruglik), who is a little too clinical in his approach and never puts down any roots in the community. “[I]t occurred to me that he’d made no particular attachments to people or place during his three years in the area, that whatever human warmth or connection he might require came from elsewhere,” he wrote. Obama was determined not to end up like that. He needed something more than organizing theory to make the South Side his home.

Whew… Or is this a ruse? Is Obama secretly still a Alinsky-ite, thirsting for raw power?


Anyway, the overall impression of the piece is that no Obama rival – not Clinton nor any possible Republican nominee – should believe that Obama is too saintly and delicate to get rough. He seems to be a really tough competitor with well-hidden sharp elbows.


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