Friday, September 07, 2012

Legislating, Educating: Obama as Community Organizer

September 7, 2012 11:00 a.m.

Whither the Democrats?

President Barack Obama is scheduled to speak on the University of Iowa Pentacrest today, September 7, 2012.

Five years ago, April 22, 2007, I had the opportunity to put a question to him at a comparable event in Iowa City.

It was a question I had put to a great many presidential candidates since the 1970s, starting with a series of television interviews I hosted, on through the quadrennial parade of candidates through Iowa City attracted by Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses.

It soon became apparent that most candidates for public office, including presidential candidates, have been asked so many questions, at so many events and interviews, over so many years, that few if any questions come to them as a surprise. The responses are smooth and designed to sooth, rehearsed and delivered as if recorded, played back from a tape cassette implanted in their brain.

The possibility occurred to me of having someone throw them a ball to see if they could catch it, or sneaking up behind them and tipping over their chair, to see how they'd react. Anything to get video of an unrehearsed response would be better than what was happening.

The producer rejected this suggestion.

Ultimately, I came up with "the question." In an Iowa City living room, it would go something like this: "Senator" (for they often were senators), "let's make two assumptions -- one, that you are, as we say, 'right on the issues,' and two, that you get elected. Why are the coal mines going to be safer places for coal miners to work? Why will the Congress stop spending our money for weapons systems the Defense Department doesn't want? Why will shipowners' subsidies be cut?"

It was, in short, a process question. It was not a "what are you going to promise us you will do?" question, but rather a "and how are you going to get it done?" question.

Almost all were totally flummoxed by the question. They had seemingly never thought about it before. Even Senator Hubert Humphrey, who was a friend and very effective senator I greatly admired, responded, "Gee, Nick, that's a great question. We need to talk about that. You come on over to the office and we're going to talk about that."

A couple came up with, "Well, I'm going to appoint good people to office" -- a response that made clear they didn't understand the problem. After all, I had been (as U.S. Maritime Administrator) what I would like to believe was a "good person in office," and had some sense of the limitations. Agencies of that sort tend to be covered by a pro-industry trade press, rather than general media. The congressional committees that determine the agencies' appropriations, legislation, and oversight tend to be made up of elected officials who come from areas impacted by those industries, and whose campaigns are funded by them. The agency's employees are wined and dined by representatives of the industry. (In the case of the agency responsible for monitoring BP prior to the Gulf oil spill, it turned out the employees were literally sleeping with industry representatives.) And although not true in my case, industry representatives often have easier access to the supervising cabinet officers and White House staff than the agency heads themselves.

No, unless "good people in office" are prepared to go along with everything their regulated industry wants them to do, they are going to be very frustrated.

In fact, during the last 40 years there have only been three presidential candidates who have at least grasped the question, the problem, and the possible answers: Jesse Jackson, Ralph Nader, and Barack Obama.

Obama's response to me, five years ago was, "Nick, I've been a community organizer."

Like many Americans' responses to many of candidate Obama's statements in 2007-08, I may have gone too far in breathing into that answer what I wanted to hear. I had visited with Saul Alinsky, whom even Bill Buckley recognized as "very close to being an organizational genius." I had gone through training at Heather Booth's Midwest Academy -- familiar to Obama.

I went away from that conversation five years ago with my personal vision of President Barack Obama as America's "community-organizer-in-chief." Yes, yes, I thought. He understands the problem. He has the insight that, as the saying has it, "When the people will lead, their leaders will follow." Or, as President Roosevelt put it to a petitioner, "I agree with you absolutely. We must do what you say. Now you go out there and make me do it." Or, as I have said before, "If you can't legislate, educate."

Obama has had the experience. He knows how to do it. He has already created and utilized the technology to expand the process from a single neighborhood to an entire nation. "Yes, we can."

Like so many hopes for change, it didn't quite work out that way.

Earlier this week I signed on to an open letter to the U.S. Senate and House Democratic Party leadership from 20 Democrats who had, in years past, served in the Senate and House, Executive Branch, administrative agencies, or other positions.

The signers, and their former positions, are: Senators James Abourezk, Fred Harris, Gary Hart; National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Administrator Joan Claybrook, New York Mayor David Dinkins, Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary Peter Edelman, Civil Rights Commission Commissioner Christopher Edley Jr., U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee Executive Director James K. Galbraith, Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, New York Consumer Commissioner Mark Green, Texas Railroad Commissioner Jim Hightower, Federal Communications Commissioner Nicholas Johnson, Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, U.S. Ambassador Derek Shearer, Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners President Stanley K. Sheinbaum , New York Governor Eliot Spitzer; Professor and MSNBC commentator Michael Eric Dyson, People for the American Way founder and TV producer Norman Lear, MSNBC commentator Ron Reagan, Rush Communications Chair and CEO Russell Simmons.

The recipients were: Senators Harry Reid, Daniel K. Inouye, Dick Durbin, Patty Murray, Charles E. Schumer; and House Representatives Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, James Clybun, John Larson, and Steve Israel.

You can find the full text of the letter here: "Open Letter From Leading Democrats to Congressional Democratic Leaders: How Democrats Can Get Back on Offense," Protect Democracy, September 3, 2012. Meanwhile, these excerpts will provide the gist:
GOP rhetoric and policies [are] extreme . . ., e.g., climate change is a hoax, voter fraud is a menace justifying voter suppression, regulations only impose costs never benefits . . . and the American President hates America. Given such regressive nonsense, where are the Democrats? The surprising answer — often defensive, defeatist, and reactive. . . .

[W]e urge Democratic Party leaders to show leadership in at least three ways:

Frames: Let’s reframe issues so that platitudes and metaphors don’t pass for analysis. . . .

With Romney-Ryan’s unpopular views on tax cuts for the wealthy and “VoucherCare” for the elderly, now’s the perfect time to frame this election as between John Galt and Modern Family -– the 1% who believe “we’re all in this alone” (Sen. Durbin’s phrase) versus “everyone’s better off when everyone’s better off.” With reactionaries dominating the policy, language and financing of the GOP, the best way Democrats can win is to hit the gas not the brakes.

Record: A weekly RepublicanReignofError could explain what would happen if those running on a right-wing-and-a-prayer actually got their way. Not just facts but stories: . . ..

Ideas: Among the things that make Democrats exceptional is FDR’s axiom that we pursue “bold, persistent experimentation.” Where are the successors to Social Security, GI Bill, the Americans with Disabilities Act? To help Democrats win and govern, what can be our positive mandate?

I suffer no illusions that our letter was anything more than what many Democratic Party strategists have been thinking. But for whatever reasons, many of our sentiments were heard in the speeches of President Bill Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden, and last evening's address by President Obama -- among others. (In Iowa City, Obama acknowledged President Clinton's home run in Charlotte: "'Michelle was amazing. President Clinton made the case in the way only he can,' Obama said. 'Somebody emailed me after his speech they said, you need to appoint him secretary of explaining stuff. That was pretty good. I like that -- the secretary of explaining stuff -- "splanin."'" "After Conventions, More of the Same," Politico ("Reid J. Epstein reported from Iowa City"), September 7, 2012.)

Voting does make a difference, as we discovered in the South after the Voting Rights Act was passed and enforced. Once African-Americans were able to vote, and did so, they discovered a remarkable improvement in the city services provided in their neighborhoods. There are a sufficient number of poor, working poor, working class, and lower middle class people in this country that if all of them would register, vote, and support the candidates who will represent their interests their candidates would win every time.

Organizing remains the key to victory in 2012, as it did in 2008. I suspect the President will have something to say about that this evening on the Pentacrest. How Americans respond will make all the difference.


[President Obama and Cast of 8000; Iowa City, Sept. 7, 2012; Photo Credit: Iowa City Press-Citizen]
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