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.