A few notes to add to Byron’s excellent article on Barack Obama’s years as a community organizer. First, clearly the Obama campaign does feel this is a key part of Obama’s qualifications to be president, as it shows up in Obama’s nomination acceptance speech, Michelle Obama’s speech, Biden’s speech, several of Obama’s ads, etc.
Second, note that Obama and his supporters speak a great deal about Obama’s choice to be a community organizer, and not so much on what he actually did. We’re continually expected to applaud the decision to try instead of asking about the results. We never hear, “because of his work, Factory X reopened,” or “because of Obama’s creation of job retraining program Y, the community’s unemployment rate reduced from A to B.”
(And we’re endlessly reminded of that starting salary, although no speaker adjusts it for inflation or admits that he quickly received raises.)
When Michelle Obama described what Obama did, she said Obama went to a group of unemployed workers and “reminded us that we know what our world should look like. We know what fairness and justice and opportunity look like. And he urged us to believe in ourselves – to find the strength within ourselves to strive for the world as it should be.” In other words, he gave an inspiring speech. The story ends a bit abruptly; we never learn whether or not those workers actually got new jobs, or moved away, or what happened to them.
In Biden’s speech, he said, “With all his talent and promise, he could have written his ticket to Wall Street. But that’s not what he chose to do. He chose to go to Chicago. The South Side. There he met men and women who had lost their jobs. Their neighborhood was devastated when the local steel plant closed. Their dreams deferred. Their dignity shattered. Their self-esteem gone. And he made their lives the work of his life.” So … if it was his life’s work, what has he done? What has changed as a result of his efforts? One job placement office and an asbestos removal from a housing project?
In Obama’s convention speech, he said, “When I listen to another worker tell me that his factory has shut down, I remember all those men and women on the South Side of Chicago who I stood by and fought for two decades ago after the local steel plant closed.” Obama “fought for” those workers, but those communities remain in pretty tough shape.
None of this is to matter, apparently. We’re supposed to just applaud the fact that he chose to do this.