Certainly, Obama has good reason to tout his community organizing experience. After graduating from an Ivy League college, Obama passed up more lucrative jobs to devote three years to organizing low-income African Americans in Chicago. That choice tells us something about his values, and his pride in it is understandable.
But his campaign has taken the point a step further, implying that Obama the politician is a direct descendant of Obama the organizer--that he has carried the practices and principles of community organizing into his campaign, and would carry them into the White House as well. This is the version of Obama's biography that most journalists have accepted.
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.
The Wall Street Journal's James Taranto provides his take, in his typically incisive style:
Judis offers the closest thing we've heard to a job description for "community organizers." What they do, he writes, is "unite people of different backgrounds around common goals and use their collective strength to wring concessions from the powers that be." To help illuminate this rather vague description, Judis also enumerates some of the tasks Obama and his colleagues undertook.
Before Obama's arrival in Chicago, Kellman and his "partner," Mike Kruglik, set out "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." Apparently the presence of "community organizers" is not a strong selling point for companies making location decisions. Go figure.
Obama set his sights lower, but still missed the mark. 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' . . . consisting of shops, restaurants, and theaters. This, too, went nowhere."
These efforts at economic development having failed, Obama "began to focus on providing social services for Altgeld Gardens," a government-owned and -operated apartment complex:"We didn't yet have the power to change state welfare policy, or create local jobs, or bring substantially more money into the schools," [Obama] 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.)
It is both funny and scary that one of America's major political parties would offer this record of sheer futility as its nominee's chief qualification to be president of the United States. Even more striking, though, is how alien the world in which Obama operated was by comparison with the world in which normal Americans live.
Reader, when your toilet breaks, do you wait around for some Ivy League hotshot to show up and organize a meeting so that you can use your collective strength to wring concessions from the powers that be?
Or do you call a plumber?