Throughout this most recent campaign I, like all of you, have been trying to get a handle on just who this man is that we have now elected as our next President. So many of us are projecting our hopes, fears, and cynicism onto who he is and what kind of President he will be, that it often gets confusing.

I continue to have lots of questions that will only be answered in the days to come. But the one thing I feel pretty certain about is that if you look at Obama’s history and how he ran his campaign, this is a man who believes in community organizing. The question is, how will that affect how he governs?

My guess right now is that his commitment to organizing is one of the reasons Obama has become such a Rorschach for most of us. To be effective in that kind of work requires a different kind of leadership than what we have grown accustomed to in politics. One of Obama’s mentors, Marshall Ganz, describes leadership this way:

Although we associate leaders with certain kinds of attributes (like power), a more useful way to look at leadership is as a kind of relationship. James McGregor Burns argues leadership can be under­stood as a relationship that emerges from repeated “exchanges” or “transactions” between leaders and followers or constituents. Leaders can provide resources constituents need to address their inter­ests and constituents can provide resources leaders need to address theirs…Effective leaders facilitate the interde­pendence or collaboration that can create more “power to” — based on the interests of all parties.

As I mentioned in a previous essay, Ganz has a whole course on Organizing available on-line. Within that course is a chapter on leadership. One of the things you’ll find there is a graph illustrating the role of leadership in community organizing.

He explains that leaders work with constituents to build coalitions and utilize their resources to reach goals. In running for President, Obama has laid out some goals. The thing is,  he needs us (the constituency) to reach those goals. We are the holders of resources that he will need to accomplish anything. That’s because we know that the powers that be are preparing to take him on as he tries to do things like get out of Iraq, provide universal health care, address climate change, and on and on.  He will need us to “have his back” when those forces try to stop him.

And if we want to see some changes in those goals, we’ll have to organize a broad enough coalition to convince him that it can be done. In other words, when we want to get a message to President Obama, we’ll have to talk to each other and get organized. A few weeks ago, I went to hear Al Giordano, a long-time community organizer, talk about how to work for change after the election. One of the things he said (sorry, I’ll have to paraphrase) is: given that Obama has so completely embraced the community organizing model, if we use it effectively, we’re sure to get his attention.

With all of that in mind, I ask you to listen once again to Obama’s now-famous “Yes We Can” speech and see if you can hear the community organizer building a coalition and motivating them to work with him to reach their goals (especially starting at about 8:00).

All of the candidates in this race share these goals. All have good ideas. And all are patriots who serve this country honorably.

But the reason our campaign has always been different is because it’s not just about what I will do as President, it’s also about what you, the people who love this country, can do to change it…

We know the battle ahead will be long, but always remember that no matter what obstacles stand in our way, nothing can withstand the power of millions of voices calling for change.

We have been told we cannot do this by a chorus of cynics who will only grow louder and more dissonant in the weeks to come. We’ve been asked to pause for a reality check. We’ve been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope.

But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope. For when we have faced down impossible odds; when we’ve been told that we’re not ready, or that we shouldn’t try, or that we can’t, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people.

Yes we can.


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    • dkmich on November 9, 2008 at 17:11

    You expressed alot of what is on my mind.  I don’t know what to make of him. On the one hand, I have heard this from him; and it gives me hope.  On the other, can we make it happen?  If we don’t, he’s lost and we lose.  

  1. in in orange.

    Cuz we’re going to need ALL OF US.

    • kj on November 9, 2008 at 17:37

    i nominate you to study (and then teach us) the Ganz’ method!  @;-)

    “In democratic countries, knowledge of how to combine is the mother of all other forms of knowledge; on its progress depends that of all the others”

       -Alexis de Tocqueville

    • WSComn on November 9, 2008 at 17:47

    don’t you know…

    Like the blue better, lol.

    I’ve bookmarked the course and will take it as soon as I get back from vacation.


  2. instead of a Emperor, A Pope, A Monarch? Bush ruled rather then governed. If the US presidency is, as Russell Banks wrote

    “A very peculiar institution. It’s not a person, but a persona or ‘role’ that a person fills or plays. And our president, in some ways even more then a monarch, represents in some very personal way the imagination and the mythology of the people who have elected him. We choose presidents, but we do not choose them on the basis of their experience or even their political views. We choose them on how well they tap into our basic belief, how expressive they are of our own deepest national mythologies……. And George W Bush wouldn’t have been elected if he hadn’t convinced enough people – not a majority, but enough people in enough places in the United States – that he was the exponeof their deepest communal desires”

    Obama offers a return to community democracy and at its heart democracy is community. The change he offers has always been here, but we took a turn to the dark side of our mythology. Hopefully this old/new vision or dream will through community organizing and bottom up, give voice to our ‘We the people… strain of communal mythologies. My only question is have we for too long been ruled by the Empirical version of the executive, the authoritarian bully version. Can we rise to the responsibilities which ask..  what you can do for your country?        

    • Edger on November 9, 2008 at 21:35

    Change That Might Actually Happen


    By Nicholas von Hoffman

    November 7, 2008, The Nation

    Either the Democratic Party destroys Barack Obama or he destroys the Democratic Party.

    The party is a network of you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours alliances between special-interest groups. Each group in the network of alliances has a political veto it can use to block the passage of a law until it gets what it wants. The arrangement amounts to a system of invisible filibusters or threats of mutually assured political destruction.

    This way of doing political business explains the grotesque features of legislation that come out of Democratic-controlled Congresses. (The political basis for Republican grotesqueries is different, if no less damaging.)

    In chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, the new president has himself a human jackhammer–but even Emanuel, using the patronage and power of the White House, will not be able to do more than hammer out some of the interest groups’ more outrageous demands. If President Obama is of a mind to engage in work more rewarding than wrestling with his party’s monomaniacally self-centered pressure groups, he will need more than Rahm Emanuel, talented though he may be.

    Recommencing the old haggles between a Congress controlled by interest groups and the White House will not bring forth the change Obama has promised. If he is to avoid getting into that squirrel cage, Obama needs a new power tool that can give the internal politics of his party a makeover. He needs to be able to pass legislation that isn’t distorted by the finaglings of lawmakers who are literally or figuratively on the payrolls of outsiders with special needs and demands. (The nine Democrats and Republicans  with serious ethical and legal problems who were re-elected the other day epitomize the problem.)  

    Obama has that tool, and he made it himself. It is the organization he created, comprised of the tens of thousands of people who put him in office. There has been nothing like it in our political history.


    The Obama organization is special, not only because of its size, but also because of the caliber of people in it, their intelligence, their idealism and their enthusiasm. If it is kept together, it will be the power tool he needs to reconstitute his party. Without it, the Obama administration will become the servant of special interest groups whose screw-you conduct has helped make the word “liberal” so disreputable.

    Obama’s nationwide ground operation is the ideal instrument for making members of Congress vote the national interest, not the special interest, when major legislation needs to be enacted. It can keep the heat on in every Congressional district and every state and convince a wider public to accept unpleasant and difficult measures, such as a serious energy conservation program that might include such things as an end to short-haul airline routes, and a national 55-mph speed limit.

    The conversion of the Obama campaign organization, which is composed of volunteers with lives of their own, into a tool of governance cannot be done with the top people sending down orders to the rank and file. For the organization to go out and sell the public on the Obama program, the people in the organization will have to be sold themselves–which means communication from the bottom up as well as the top down.

  3. Saul D. Alinsky [was] the charismatic community organizer who believed that the urban poor could become their own best advocates in a world that largely ignored them.

    Saul D. Alinsky influenced Hillary Rodham and Barack Obama as they began their careers. (Associated Press)

    Seventeen years later, another young honor student was offered a job as an organizer in Chicago. By then, Alinsky had died, but a group of his disciples hired Barack Obama, a 23-year-old Columbia University graduate, to organize black residents on the South Side, while learning and applying Alinsky’s philosophy of street-level democracy.  

    Obama embraced many of Alinsky’s tactics and recently said his years as an organizer gave him the best education of his life.

    Alinsky was a bluff iconoclast who concluded that electoral politics offered few solutions to the have-nots marooned in working-class slums. His approach to social justice relied on generating conflict to mobilize the dispossessed. Power flowed up, he said, and neighborhood leaders who could generate outside pressure on the system were more likely to produce effective change than the lofty lever-pullers operating on the inside.

    Both Obama and Clinton admired Alinsky’s appeal for small-d democracy but came to believe that social progress is best achieved by working within the political system, and on a national scale.

    Both went to law school, turned to a mix of courthouse and community remedies, and eventually moved into electoral politics.

    And now we are here with the “Organizer-In-Chief.”

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