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“A Community Organizing Virtuoso”: President Obama Is Well-Versed In The “Dance” Between Activists And Politicians

Years ago I was a program manager at a nonprofit organization and decided to apply to be the executive director of the same agency. The board of directors asked staff to review resumes and interview finalists for the job (including me).

The staff I supervised at the time objected to the fact that I included on my resume the accomplishments of the program I managed. Their response was that they had been the ones that did the work and I was taking credit for their efforts.

In a way, they had a point. But they also didn’t understand leadership. As coach of the Green Bay Packers, Vince Lombardi never scored a touchdown and never kicked a field goal. And yet he is credited with the success of that football team throughout most of the 1960’s.

In the end, I decided to take the staff objections as a compliment. That’s because I value the kind of leadership that facilitates the feeling of ownership by employees for their accomplishments. It’s the kind that Marshall Ganz described this way:

Another important distinction is that between leadership and domination. Effective leaders facilitate the interdependence or collaboration that can create more “power to” — based on the interests of all parties. Domination is the exercise of “power over” –a relationship that meets interests of the “power wielder” at the expense of everyone else.

Over the course of Obama’s presidency, we’ve often heard that he doesn’t do enough to tout his own record and when someone else does, activists jump in and take credit for pushing him to do something. Most recently that happened with his executive orders on immigration. Activists who had interrupted his speeches and called him the “Deporter-in-Cheif” took credit. The same thing happened when DADT was finally overturned a few years ago.

While Obama’s supporters often complain about that, I’m not sure the President would mind. As a former community organizer, he is well-versed in the “dance” between activists and politicians. And I believe that his goal as President has always been to lead in the same way he did back in those early days in Chicago. Here’s how James Kloppenberg described him in Reading Obama.

How did Obama, lacking any experience as an organizer, learn the ropes so fast? In Galuzzo’s words, “nobody teaches a jazz musician jazz. This man is gifted.”

Kruglik explains Obama’s genius by describing two approaches community organizers often use. Trying to mobilize a group of fifty people, a novice will elicit responses from a handful, then immediately transform their stray comments into his or her own statement of priorities and strategies. The group responds, not surprisingly, by rejecting the organizer’s recommendations. By contrast, a master takes the time to listen to many comments, rephrases questions, and waits until the individuals in the group begin to see for themselves what they have in common. A skilled organizer then patiently allows the animating principles and the plan of action to emerge from the group itself. That strategy obviously takes more time. It also takes more intelligence, both analytical and emotional. Groups can tell when they are being manipulated, and they know when they are being heard. According to Kruglik, Obama showed an exceptional willingness to listen to what people were saying. He did not rush from their concerns to his. He did not shift the focus from one issue to another until they were ready. He did not close off discussions about strategy, which were left open for reconsideration pending results. Obama managed to coax from groups a sense of what they shared, an awareness that proved sturdy because it was their doing, not his. From those shared concerns he was able to inspire a commitment to action. In the time it takes most trainees to learn the basics, Obama showed a virtuosos’s ability to improvise. As Galuzzo put it, he was gifted.

And here is how Barack Obama described it himself back in 1988.

In return, organizing teaches as nothing else does the beauty and strength of everyday people. Through the songs of the church and the talk on the stoops, through the hundreds of individual stories of coming up from the South and finding any job that would pay, of raising families on threadbare budgets, of losing some children to drugs and watching others earn degrees and land jobs their parents could never aspire to — it is through these stories and songs of dashed hopes and powers of endurance, of ugliness and strife, subtlety and laughter, that organizers can shape a sense of community not only for others, but for themselves.

(If you’ve ever wondered whether Obama had/has potential as a gifted writer…there’s your answer!)

There is both a quantitative and qualitative difference between organizing fifty people on the South Side of Chicago and leading the entire country. That is why Michelle Obama described her husband’s foray into politics like this:

Barack is not a politician first and foremost. He’s a community activist exploring the viability of politics to make change.

And so I suspect that when citizens take credit for the changes they’ve worked to make happen, the community activist in him counts that as a success. Pundits who are attuned to the polarization in our politics have a point about whether or not that is a reasonable approach to take these days. But when our founders talked about “a government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” it’s exactly what they had in mind.


By: Nancy LeTourneau, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, August 1, 2015

August 2, 2015 Posted by | Community Organizers, Politicians, President Obama | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“You Know Me, You Know What I Believe”: Barack Obama Really Is The Man You Have Always Believed Him To Be

The opportunity to address the Penn community about the presidential election is a privilege, for the differences between the candidates affect us directly. President Obama has doubled the Pell Grant program that helps pay for college. Mr. Romney would roll that program back. The president’s health care law empowers young adults to stay on their parents’ coverage until age 26. Mr. Romney would eliminate that right. President Obama is fighting to protect women’s control over their own bodies, and he is the greatest champion for LGBT equality in the history of the American presidency. Mr. Romney has proclaimed his desire to sign legislation to outlaw all abortion, impede women’s access to affordable contraception and amend the Constitution to turn same-sex couples into second-class citizens. Such differences could determine any person’s vote.

Still, the greatest value I can add is not an exegesis of the issues, but an account of the president in more personal terms. I have not served in this administration, but I got to know Barack Obama on the 2008 campaign, and I have worked with his team in the White House. I know about this president’s character.

President Obama is driven by a core belief that government can play a role in improving people’s lives and protecting human dignity. I have experienced the force of those values firsthand.

I stood in the West Wing on the weekend before the House of Representatives’ historic vote on the Affordable Care Act — the fulfillment of a decades-long promise to make decent health care a right in this country, not a privilege. I saw the look of excitement on the faces of administration officials as they approached the end of the long, imperfect road that would make possible this profound act of humanity.

I sat in the audience as President Obama signed the repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, ending over two centuries of anti-gay discrimination in the military and bringing America a step closer to the promise of equal citizenship. I shared an embrace with the president in celebration of one of his proudest accomplishments, and I walked the halls of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, the main office space of the White House, where spontaneous cheers had echoed through the Second Empire structure when the president proclaimed, “This is done.”

I have experienced this administration’s determination to preserve the hopes and dreams of women, whose right to full equality is again threatened by ideologues who would control their bodies, limit their choices and deny them equal pay. And the day President Obama announced his support for marriage equality, I was in the White House to witness the tearful eyes of his LGBT staff and the beaming pride of his senior advisors as they once again saw their President make history.

I do not know what values drive Mitt Romney. The answer to that question seems to change with each audience he addresses and every office he seeks.

I do know President Obama. As you enter the voting booth, remember this: Barack Obama really is the man you have always believed him to be. Through one of the most challenging terms in the modern history of the American presidency, Mr. Obama has saved our economy, improved our laws and elevated our voices. I will cast my vote proudly for the president, with excitement for the four years ahead.


By: Tobias Wolff, The New Civil Rights Movement, November 5, 2012

November 6, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Evangelical Chauffeur’s: What The Religious Right Want’s From Romney

After Mitt Romney’s foreign policy spokesman Richard Grenell resigned on Tuesday in response to social conservative complaints about his sexual orientation and his support for same-sex marriage, Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association is claiming credit. On his radio program Tuesday afternoon Fischer–who was the first to criticize Grenell for being “an out, loud and proud homosexual”–boasted, “This is a huge win… I will flat out guarantee you [Romney] is not going to make this mistake again. There is no way in the world that Mitt Romney is going to put a homosexual activist in any position of importance in his campaign.” (Fischer is a former evangelical pastor who is prone to making controversial remarkssuch as, “we should screen out homosexuals who want to immigrate to the United States.”)

That, of course, raises an important question: if staunch religious conservatives such as Fischer can dictate Romney’s policy and personnel decisions, what other demands will they make?

I called Fischer to find out. He says there are a number of stances on issues Romney has thus far avoided that would reassure the “pro-family” community. The most significant includes a pledge to veto the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would protect gays and lesbians from workplace discrimination, reinstating Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) and removing spousal benefits for the domestic partners of federal employees. Fischer laid out these same ideas in his initial attack on Grenell. “Romney needs to make the following public commitments… if he is to have any hope of generating even modest enthusiasm in the base…. If he’s going to pander, he’d better start pandering in a big, fat hurry.”

Here’s what Fischer told me on Wednesday:

One thing [Romney] can do is come out and endorse North Carolina’s marriage amendment. Sanctity of marriage is a very important issue for the pro-family community. I would urge him to restate his commitment to rigorously defend the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). I would urge him to commit to revoking spousal benefits for unmarried domestic partners. President Obama has extended spousal benefits to partners of federal employees in violation of DOMA. We need to hear Romney take a position on reversing that. He needs to publicly commit to vetoing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) if it reaches his desk. I think he should reinstate the ban on homosexuality in the military. He said he won’t do that, but he should make it clear that military chaplains on his watch will have freedom to teach biblical view of sexuality without any fear of repercussions.

Romney has a nuanced–some might say slippery–relationship with a few of these issues. On DADT Romney criticizes President Obama for signing the law repealing it and allowing gays to serve openly in the military. But his rationale is not exactly that it was the wrong policy in the abstract, only that it was too stressful for the military. Therefore he says it would be even more disruptive to reverse the repeal now. This complicated position has the virtue of being partially acceptable to people on both sides of the issue. He must attempt to keep the anti-gay conservative base mollified while not alienating the large majority of the public that supported letting gays serve. His position allows him to sidestep taking any stance of accepting or rejecting homosexuality, while nominally caring only about what is best for the military as a whole. Of course, what was best for the brave men and women already serving in the military who happened to be gay doesn’t enter into this calculation. It is politically shrewd, albeit nakedly calculating and cowardly.

On some of these other hot button issues, such as benefits for the domestic partners of federal employees and ENDA, Romney hasn’t taken a stance in this campaign. His campaign declined to comment on these issues. But Romney has spoken about ENDA in the past. Back in 1994 when he ran for U.S. Senate he pledged to co-sponsor ENDA if he was elected. Then, in 2007, he said he would not support ENDA as president. So Fischer should rest assured that, as of Romney’s most recent flip-flop, he opposes protecting gays from discrimination in the workplace.

The other issues are essentially symbolic. The president has no say over state ballot initiatives regarding marriage. The supposed oppression anti-gay military chaplains is an obscure myth that no one outside the religious right even knows about. It is mostly idle conjecture that chaplains will not be allowed to insult homosexuality now that gays can serve openly in the military, not actual evidence of any chaplains being punished.

Symbolism, though, is important to Fischer, as it is to many social conservatives. Unlike other evangelical leaders, who pretended that their only objection to Grenell was his advocacy for marriage equality, Fischer readily admits that he doesn’t think Romney should have openly gay staffers. “If Richard Grenell had kept his sexual preferences to himself, none of this would have happened,” says Fischer. “Nobody would know, nobody would care.” I asked if that meant he thinks gays can work on the Romney campaign only if they remain in the closet, but not if they are open about their sexual orientation. Fischer didn’t dispute that characterization of his views, saying, “In [Washington], D.C. personnel is policy. If [Romney] wants to reassure the evangelical community that he’s with us on the sanctity of marriage then he should not make hiring decisions that confuse us about where he stands.”

The Romney campaign declined to respond to Fischer’s comments. Romney has butted heads with Fischer in the past, most notably when he criticized Fischer’s lack of “civility” at the Conservative Political Action Conference last year.

Given that Fischer has expressed misgivings about Romney in the past, especially about whether he is truly committed to the social conservative cause, I wondered why Fischer was so happy that Romney dumped Grenell. Isn’t this just more evidence that Romney doesn’t, in his heart, oppose homosexuality; he just will bend to the conservative base as much as he has to? Then again, does it matter? Or is the proof that you can control a candidate as valuable as the proof that he personally agrees with you? “You would prefer to have a candidate that you know is with you in his heart on these issues,” says Fischer. “But 10 years from now all that’s going to matter is the policies he pursued, it’s not going to matter why he pursued them. If he will do the right thing because it is politically expedient, then he will have done the right thing. At the end of the day that’s what’s going to count.”


By: Ben Adler, The Nation, May 3, 2012

May 3, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Mad Men and Mad Women: Republicans And Social Engineering

Republicans hate social engineering, unless they’re doing it.

Wishing they had the power to repeal the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and get back to the repressed “Mad Men” world they crave, some conservative lawmakers grumpily quizzed upbeat military brass on Friday.

“We’re starting to try to conform the military to a behavior, and I remember going through the military, we took behaviors and we formed it to the military,” said Representative Allen West of Florida, warning ominously (and weirdly) that “this could be the camel getting his nose under the tent.”

The House Armed Services subcommittee hearing was led by Joe Wilson, the oh-so-subtle Republican congressman from South Carolina famous for yelling “You lie!” at President Obama. Wilson started off the hearing by saying that the legislation to let gays stop lying while they risk dying was rushed through in an “undemocratic” lame-duck session.

Two top Pentagon officials testified that the transition was going swimmingly, yet Republicans scoffed. Representative Austin Scott of Georgia demanded the price tag. Clifford Stanley, an under secretary of defense, replied that the training materials cost only $10,000.

Scott harrumphed, “If something was done at D.O.D. for $10,000, I would like to know what it was.” He said that hundreds of thousands had been spent training a soldier in his district to disarm I.E.D.’s, but the soldier wouldn’t re-enlist because of the “social policy.”

The Democrat Chellie Pingree of Maine jumped in to note that the cost of purging gays between 2004 and 2009 was $193.3 million: “It’s not only unconscionable … but the costs are horrendous.”

Scott persisted in looking for trouble, even after Vice Adm. William Gortney, director of the joint staff, said the Pentagon had seen no problems so far.

The congressman asked the admiral if he had ever dismissed anyone. Gortney said he had dismissed a young sailor who acknowledged being gay after “don’t ask, don’t tell” first passed.

“Did you discharge him from the service because he was gay?” Scott asked. “Or because he violated the standard of conduct?”

“Because he was gay,” Gortney said.

“He did not violate the standard of conduct before he was dismissed?” Scott pressed.

“He did not,” Gortney said.

“Well,” Scott said, once more at a loss, “that’s not the answer I thought you would give, to be honest with you.”

Gortney assured him there were “very few cases” of gays’ being dismissed for violating the standard of conduct.

After the Republican rout in November, the story line took hold that because of the recession and Tea Partiers’ fervent focus on the debt as a moral matter, divisive social issues were going on the back burner. But lo and behold, social issues have roared back. Many in the Tea Party have joined that chain-smoking, cocktail-quaffing Mad Man John Boehner in the martini party to put a retro focus on wedge issues, from gays to abortion.

Like Boehner, who complained that Democratic leaders were “snuffing out the America that I grew up in,” some Tea Partiers are jumping in a time machine. They can’t stop themselves from linking social issues to the budget.

“This pulls the mask back a little bit on the Tea Party movement,” said Representative Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat from Maryland. “Adding riders against Planned Parenthood and gutting the environmental laws indicate that the Tea Party is focused on imposing a right-wing ideological agenda on the country and using the budget as a vehicle.”

Whether it’s upholding the Defense of Marriage Act, trying to defund Planned Parenthood, or aiming cuts at the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Endowment for the Arts, NPR and even AARP, House Republicans are in a lather that occludes their pledges to monomaniacally work on the economy.

When Mitch Daniels, the Indiana governor and Republican presidential aspirant, dared to urge his party to “mute” social issues, he was smacked.

“We cannot repair the economy without addressing the deep cultural issues that are tearing apart the family and society,” said Andy Blom of the American Principles Project. The presidential hopeful Rick Santorum even posited last week that abortions might be breaking the bank on Social Security.

The snowball of social rage will speed up as we head toward 2012, given that the Iowa caucuses are dominated by social conservatives. Pawlenty, Barbour and Huckabee have already talked about vitiating the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Because independent voters considered President Obama too partisan in his debut, they shifted their loyalties — and swept in one of the most ideological and partisan Republican caucuses in history. Now Obama will get back some of the independents because he seems reasonable by comparison.

One thing independents like to be independent of is government meddling in their personal lives. 

By: Maureen Dowd, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, April 2, 2011 

April 2, 2011 Posted by | Congress, Conservatives, Democracy, GOP, Independents, Politics, Privacy, Republicans, Right Wing, Swing Voters, Tea Party, Voters | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Forgotten Accomplishments of The 111th Congress

It’s already been pointed out endlessly that the 111th Congress has been one of the most productive in decades. But here’s another way to look at it: Consider all the things this Congress has accomplished that we aren’t talking about.

Health care reform, the overhaul of Wall Street regulations, the ratification of New START and the repeal of don’t ask don’t tell are, of course, the accomplishments that will define this Congress in the history books. But there are a whole host of other relatively under-the-radar achievements that in and of themselves would normally be considered major achievements, had they not been completely overshadowed by the big ticket items.

Before we all depart for the holidays, let’s pause for a moment of reflection on these also-ran accomplishments, some of which passed with broad bipartisan support. There’s the Lily Ledbetter fair pay act, which reversed a Supreme Court decision limiting the ability of women to sue over salary discrimination. There’s the sweeping credit card reform measure putting a halt to unfair and deceptive industry practices. There’s the landmark legislation that greatly expanded the FDA’s authority to regulate the manufacturing and marketing of tobacco products.

There’s the largely forgotten measure that vastly expanded Federal aid to college kids that ultimately passed as part of health reform. More visibly, there is the food safety bill and the measure granting health benefits to 9/11 responders, both of which passed this month. And two women were confirmed to the Supreme Court, one of them a Latina — a historic accomplishment.

This is only a partial list.

Under normal circumstances, these alone would have constituted significant achievements. “When you look beneath the surface just a little bit there’s an enormous amount that under normal circumstances would have been heralded but got very little attention,” Congressional scholar Norm Ornstein tells me.

The larger story here, though, is that if you add in these accomplishments with the more visible ones, it becomes clear that Congress has expanded government’s reach even more than commonly thought. For all the justifiable criticism of health and Wall Street reform for not going far enough — and for all the talk about the coming battle to repeal them — the bigger story is that the sum total of this Congress’s major and minor achievements have produced an expansion of government’s role in society that will be very hard to undo.

“Taken together, the smaller accomplishments may have an impact on society that rivals the main accomplishments, and they have all bolstered government’s role as a protector of the public interest,” Ornstein says.

And so, one more tip of the hat to the 111th Congress and its leadership.

By Greg Sargent -The Plum Line, Washington Post- December 23, 2010

December 23, 2010 Posted by | Congress | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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