In the New Republic, John Judis has an insightful analysis of Barack Obama's experience as a community organizer and his rejection of organizing (tip to Instapundit).
Later, after becoming a student at Harvard, Obama spoke at a conference about organizing, rejecting many of Alinsky's central ideas:
In truth, however, if you examine carefully how Obama conducted himself as an organizer and how he has conducted himself as a politician, if you consider what he said about organizing to his fellow organizers, and if you look at the reasons he gave friends and colleagues for abandoning organizing, then a very different picture emerges: that of a disillusioned activist who fashioned his political identity not as an extension of community organizing but as a wholesale rejection of it. Indeed, the most important thing to know about Barack Obama's time as a community organizer in Chicago may not be what he gained from the experience--but rather why, in late 1987, he decided to quit. . . .
Obama attempted to put these principles into practice in South Chicago. Kellman and Kruglik's initial objective was to revive the region's manufacturing base--and preserve what remained of its steel industry--by working with unions and church groups to pressure companies and the city; but those hopes were quickly dashed. Indeed, during his three years in South Chicago, Obama was constantly having to scale back his objectives as one project after another faltered. First, he got community members to demand a job center that would provide job referrals, but there were few jobs to distribute. Then, he tried to create what he called a "second-level consumer economy" in Roseland consisting of shops, restaurants, and theaters. This, too, went nowhere. At that point, Kellman advised Obama to move elsewhere. "Stay here, and you are bound to fail," he told him.
But Obama remained. Next, he began to focus on providing social services for Altgeld Gardens. "We didn't yet have the power to change state welfare policy, or create local jobs, or bring substantially more money into the schools," he wrote. "But what we could do was begin to improve basic services at Altgeld--get the toilets fixed, the heaters working, the windows repaired." Obama helped the residents wage a successful campaign to get the Chicago Housing Authority to promise to remove asbestos from the units; but, after an initial burst of activity, the city failed to keep its promise. (As of last year, some residences still had not been cleared of asbestos.) In waging these campaigns, Obama's organization added staff, gained adherents, and won church support, including from the congregation of Reverend Jeremiah Wright. But it failed to stem the area's overall decline. "Ain't nothing gonna change, Mr. Obama," says one resident quoted in Dreams from My Father who grows disillusioned with the Developing Communities Project. "We just gonna concentrate on saving our money so we can move outta here as fast as we can."
Publicly, however, Obama did not appear discouraged. He continued to train other organizers for the Gamaliel Foundation.
He had a litany of criticisms of Alinsky-style organizing that he wanted to put forward. He objected to community organizers' dismissal of charismatic leadership and of movements. Instead of making the point directly, he recalled a friend telling him of an IAF trainer who complained that "movements are rotten with charismatic leaders." Obama said his friend had responded, "That's nonsense. We want a movement. I would love to have Martin Luther King here right now." Obama argued that charismatic leaders and movements bring "long-term vision," and that community organizers cannot be effective without such vision.
Obama also criticized community organizers' "suspicion of politics." "The problem we face now in terms of organizing is that politics is a major arena of power," Obama said. "That's where your major dialogue, discussion, is taking place. To marginalize yourself from that process is a damaging thing, and one that needs to be rethought."
Before he was done, Obama had rejected the guiding principles of community organizing: the elevation of self-interest over moral vision; the disdain for charismatic leaders and their movements; and the suspicion of politics itself.
I've been thinking a lot about some of these issues. After Michelle Obama's speech where she said that, when she met him, Barack was talking about "The world as it should be," not settling for "The world as it is." Some have pointed to the source of these phrases: Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals. But Alinsky insisted that people focus on the world as it is. In essence, Barack reversed Alinsky's teaching by focusing on the world as it should be: the vision thing.
Left to his own devices, Barack Obama is an extremely thoughtful guy, who often reworks and synthesizes the influences he absorbs. If one looks at Obama's current education proposals, he has jettisoned most of the left-wing Bill Ayers-style ideas that the Annenberg Challenge pushed in the mid-1990s when Obama was its chair — probably because they didn't work.
The most radical of Obama's current education ideas is his proposal for mandatory universal service by school children. While many in the left-wing democracy education movement favor universal service, Ayers seems to embrace this idea less than most. Ayers is more iconoclastic (and idiosyncratic) than someone like Obama. Ayers does emphasize bringing the community into the schools and vice versa, but (from what I've read) a massive federal community service requirement is not really his style.
And — as radical as mandatory community service issue is — it is favored by many on the political right as well as in the political center. It is both radical and politically mainstream. Even John McCain has in the past at least entertained the idea of mandatory national service. I have been unable to determine so far how much experience Barack Obama has actually had with mandatory service, so I don't know whether his support for mandatory service results from experience or a lack of experience.
One area where Obama has had lots of experience but where his trademark thoughtfulness has failed him is private-public housing projects. His best friends and supporters built and managed public-private projects that failed miserably. One of the projects was one Obama worked on as a lawyer (Rezko was involved). Yet that project and one other run by one of his closest friends and advisors, Valerie Jarrett, deteriorated literally just hundreds of yards from his office on the west wall of the University of Chicago Law School. He could look out his window and see these projects as they declined. Yet he is proposing a lot more of the same.
Yet Obama's support for public-private housing projects is an exception. Usually, Obama learns from the failures of his reform proposals. Generally, he is a pragmatic idealist.
People should not confuse Obama's personality with his political orientation: by personality, Obama is the most reasonable, thoughtful, moderate person on either national ticket. He is definitely NOT an ideologue. Yet by political orientation, Obama is the most liberal or progressive candidate to be a party nominee for president in at least a half century — probably ever. That explains why he is in essence a radical incrementalist.