The Obama Watch

Community Organizer in Chief

Our president has as much of a problem with the experience he has as with the experience he lacks.

By 11.30.09

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Mark Steyn and Hugh Hewitt were talking on Hewitt's radio show when Hewitt suggested that Barack Obama does not know how to be president. Steyn shoehorned that comment into a column about Obama's "crassly parochial narcissism," supporting the dig with familiar examples, most recently presidential failure to return from a trip to Asia with anything more than fodder for a Saturday Night Live sketch.

Steyn and Hewitt are not alone in thinking the president ill-equipped for his job, and so it makes sense to ask "why" rather than "whether" he makes so many mistakes. Obama's defenders treat those mistakes as the occupational hazards of anyone in his position, but the White House itself undercuts their argument by treating almost everything Obama does as unprecedented. Anyone who claims unique success must also concede the possibility of unique failure.

Critics often write about President Obama's lack of executive experience as though it were the one shortcoming that explains everything from diplomatic gaffes to vetting problems and typos on state dinner menus. Three years from now, the same people will be writing stories about how Obama has grown in office. Unfortunately, treating experience like the object of a quest bestows more nobility on President Obama than a sober reading of his work would allow. Our president has as much of a problem with the experience he has as with the experience he lacks.

When Barack Obama humbled Hillary Clinton, the campaign orchestrated for him by Democratic fixers was widely misread as a thing of genius. Because Hillary has fans who delude themselves into thinking of her as the smartest woman in America, an influential few figured that anyone who beat her had to be even smarter. But smooth is not the same as smart, and neither smooth nor smart should be confused with effective. In fact, there is more evidence for saying that Obama is vindictive than for saying he is smart, and that matters when smarts are supposed to compensate for inexperience.

Remember how Obama's college transcripts, his curious failure to write anything for the Harvard Law Review while editing that publication, and his habitual votes of "present" in the Illinois State Senate were frog-marched down the memory hole? Only later did we learn that those questions from his past keep company with Jeremiah Wright, Van Jones, Bill Ayers, Samantha Power, Greg Craig, and anyone else (sincere or cynical) who breaks a potluck promise by arriving at Chez Obama with nachos and bean dip rather than a platter of Wagyu Steaks.

Obama's legislative career was too short to be distinguished, and he got little campaign leverage from his stint as a lecturer in constitutional law once his enthusiasm for Roe v. Wade and his nuanced-to-the-point-of-neutering relationship with the Second Amendment became common knowledge. As a result, the most interesting part of his pre-presidential experience is his time as a community organizer.

Supporters were quick to defend that part of his background when Sarah Palin quipped that "being a small-town mayor is sort of like [being] a community organizer, except you have actual responsibilities."

Her barb stampeded Democrats into swelling the ranks of community organizers with as many cherry-picked names as they could find. They drafted everyone from Clara Barton and Crazy Horse to Lech Walesa while trying to give Obama a better pedigree. Some Democrats even elbowed carpenters and rabbis aside to call Jesus a community organizer.

These partisans ignored anyone scripturally literate enough to observe that Jesus deputized "community organizing" chores to Peter and the other apostles. Worse, no one trying to draft Jesus for Obama asked why a rabbi allegedly organizing other Jews spent so much of His public ministry flouting their expectations, and no one in that little movement noticed that Jesus told his apostles to preach the gospel past community boundaries to the ends of the Earth. That Obama seems to think he has the same reach (and nearly the same significance) helps explain why his more fervent supporters don't see anything weird about looking at Jesus through Obama instead of the other way around.

As one of the people trying to draft Jesus for Obama, Joe Klein of Time magazine rubbed Sarah Palin out of his disbelieving eyes to complain that community organizers are "doing the Lord's work." At some level removed from President Obama he might have a point, but it is absurd to think that off-the-rails mentors like Frank Marshall Davis, Bill Ayers, and Jeremiah Wright offered Barry O a blueprint for such work.

ACORN itself hints at the limits of using that brand of activism as a steppingstone to executive responsibility. While neither the ACORN website nor the Wikipedia entry on community organizing is definitive, both are instructive. According to its website, ACORN exists to "bring neighbors together to work for stronger, safer, and more just communities." These goals are met through "issue campaigns, service delivery, ballot initiatives, and voter participation."

The Wikipedia entry on community organizers traces that label back to Saul Alinsky, and describes their work as "a process by which people living in proximity to each other are brought together in an organization to act in their shared self-interest." The entry also says that unlike community development, which "generally assumes that groups and individuals can work together collaboratively without significant conflict or struggles over power to solve community challenges," community organizing takes conflict and power struggles for granted.

Reading the ACORN and Wikipedia descriptions leaves the impression that community organizers strive to equip other people for political combat, usually by facilitating meetings. Unfortunately for a president who leans heavily on such experience, neither of those skills animates a nonpartisan outlook or sharpens decision-making ability.

Anyone weaned on ideologies whose sole purpose is to "Stick it to the Man" is keenly aware of office perks, and so Mr. Hope and Change stiffed allies like Great Britain and Poland. He set a first-year foreign travel record, but has little to show for it, as can be seen when even a sympathetic columnist quotes Henry Kissinger reaching for a chess metaphor to wonder whether Obama has a middle game, while a Latvian official worries about Obama making democracy unfashionable.

At home, Obama found time to play a lot of golf.

Reflexive disdain for authority other than his own also explains why President Obama pontificates about everything from the Cambridge Police Department to "smarter diplomacy" that isn't. According to rules learned early in his life and reinforced by experience fresh out of college, whatever vexes the powers that be must be called successful. To be fair, some other politicians think the same way. They have that in common with many of the people serving prison terms.

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About the Author

Patrick O'Hannigan is a writer in North Carolina.