The Community Organizer in Washington

January 27, 2010

Remember when critics of candidate Barack Obama disparagingly called him a “community organizer” who didn’t know anything about how to run the country? Well, I liked the fact that Obama had been a community organizer. To me, it meant that he understood hard work, people, and problems. It meant that he knew how to go about reaching a goal. It meant he possessed the combination of ideals and assertiveness that are essential to getting the job done.

When Obama won the presidency and the one-time community organizer went to Washington, those  qualities seemed to fade against the background of two wars, a failed economic strategy, and a cruelly divided nation. How to begin to organize all that? You see, to be a community organizer, you need a community, and Obama’s new neighborhood, the Congress, is not a community at all.

Community organizing requires a group of people who all believe passionately in a cause and are willing to devote time to making their vision a reality. Community organizing requires a common understanding of the problem and  a common belief in the way that problem should be overcome.

That’s not the way Congress works in the 21st century. Take any issue currently plaguing the nation—joblessness, the deficit, poverty, rising health care costs, war, threats to national security. Is Congress as a whole in agreement about how to approach any of these problems? Is Congress as a whole in agreement that all of these issues are problems? Is a majority of Congress able to agree on anything? Obviously, the answer is “no.”

So, what’s a community organizer to do if he doesn’t have a community?

He did have one. He had the progressives at “Yes, we can.” But after he went to Washington, their cries grew smaller and smaller as the voices of the Washington types grew louder and louder. And it wasn’t all the president’s fault; many progressive voices grew silent this past year, either in response to Obama’s election (“Well, that’s done. Everything’s all better now.”) or in response to their hurt feelings over a particular issue (think gay rights, civil liberties, Main Street, and did I mention gay rights?) being ignored.

The singular issue Obama didn’t ignore was health care reform. As our community organizer-in-chief, he delegated that job to his community, the Congress of the United States.  But they’re not a community, remember?  They’re not a group of people who all believe passionately in a cause and are willing to devote time to making their vision a reality. Some of them think the cause is wrong, others think the solutions are wrong, and still others think the whole project is taking far too much of their time. And, don’t forget,  all of them have their own individual re-elections to consider, too.

The Congressional community is refusing to be organized around the issue of health care reform. Why? The cardinal rule of community organizing is “Tell your story.” That means “State your case, clearly and vividly. Tell people why they should be fighting alongside you.” Obama the community organizer either didn’t do that, or his community didn’t listen. Maybe it was a little bit of both.

So, the community organizer is in Washington, without a community and without a good story. If he really has the ideals and assertiveness I hope he has, our president can still come out of this situati0n with a happy ending. Ideals and assertiveness: those sound like the qualities of a leader. Come on, President Obama. Lead us. Please.

***My thanks go out to the two amazingly good writers whose articles I read in Newsweek magazine before completing this post: The Trouble With Barack by Jon Meacham and Change We Can Believe In by Fareed Zakaria.

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