Wednesday, January 23, 2013

At Last, Action

January 23, 2013, 10:50 a.m.

Obama as National Community-Organizer-in-Chief

"You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course. You and I, as citizens, have the obligation to shape the debates of our time -- not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals."

President Barack Obama, Second Inaugural Address, January 21, 2103, [Photo credit: multiple sources]
As an FCC commissioner, I discovered what I called "the vector analysis of administrative decision making." Figure out the directions from which pressure is being applied to an administrative agency, and the force of those pressures, and you can pretty much predict where that agency's decision will end up.

Congress is subject to a similar analysis. It differs from agencies only in the force of the pressure, with special interests' millions in campaign contributions and thousands of lobbyists. But the principle is the same: without countervailing pressure from other directions, and a pressure of similar force, it is fairly obvious the special interests will get what they want (or, more often, be able to prevent what they don't want).

As I've written elsewhere,
The anecdote is told of President Franklin Roosevelt telling advocates of progressive ideas, in effect, “I agree with you. Now you go out there and make me do it” – at least with Frances Perkins (Social Security) and A. Philip Randolph (civil rights legislation), and probably many more. His point, of course, was a variant of the old adage, “When the people will lead their leaders will follow.” It’s very difficult to pass legislation over the opposition of the special interests without overwhelming popular awareness, involvement and support.
Nicholas Johnson, "'The Answer' in 2008," Are We There Yet? Reflections on Politics in America (2008), pp. 160, 162.

On April 22, 2007, I had the opportunity to put a question to then-candidate Obama at an event in Iowa City. It was 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.

Obama's response was, "Nick, I've been a community organizer."

Like many Americans' responses to Senator 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 with my personal vision of a President Barack Obama as America's "national community-organizer-in-chief." Yes, yes, I thought. He understands the distinction between legislative proposals and legislative enactments; he has had the experience; he knows how to do it. He has already created and utilized in his presidential campaign 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.

Now, in his second term, following those two sentences from his inaugural address quoted at the top of this blog entry, it looks like he may be prepared to draw on that prior experience as a community organizer, and the wisdom of President Franklin Roosevelt's approach to change, and apply a little vector analysis to the congressional legislative process.

If you want to join in the effort to "go out there and make him do it," here at last is your chance:

Jon Carson, "Welcome to Organizing for Action," January 20, 2013,

along with a little encouragement from Michelle Obama:

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1 comment:

Nick said...

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-- Nick