Community organizing along the lines of Saul Alinsky strikes me as a quintessentially Chicago phenomenon, and Obama, with no previous ties to Chicago, decided to move there when he took up community organizing in the 1980s and returned there to do it again after he finished Harvard Law School. Alinsky's style of community organizing is premised on the continuing existence of a partially corrupt and deeply incestuous political machine that cannot be dislodged but can be pressured. I recall one community organizing project launched, I think, by Alinsky: He wanted some change in public policy, so he had people sit in all the toilet stalls at O'Hare International Airport and remain there for hours. O'Hare was the favorite project of the late Mayor Daley (and of the current Mayor Daley as well), and the sit-in resulted in a quick capitulation by "Da Mare."
But Obama seems to have rejected the Alinsky model. That's the thesis of a fascinating article by John Judis in the New Republic. Citing Obama's memoir and some independent reporting, Judis argues that Obama decided that community organizing was a dead end and concluded that electoral politics was the way to make real change. He made his leap shrewdly. Living in Hyde Park/Kenwood, he cultivated a left-wing base that included the unrepentant terrorist bomber William Ayers, who admitted to setting bombs at the Pentagon and U.S. Capitol, and 13th District state Sen. Alice Palmer. Part of the 13th District was in Hyde Park, but most of its voters were on the overwhelmingly black South Side, where Obama made friends by joining the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's church. At Ayers's house, he got Palmer's endorsement to succeed her; then, when she re-entered the race, he challenged her ballot petitions and got her (and all the other candidates) thrown off the primary ballots.
As a state senator and then as a U.S. senator, Obama took care not to antagonize the Chicago civic establishment. His patron in the state Senate was Emil Jones, who was backed by Mayor Richard M. Daley over Jesse Jackson Jr. in a special congressional seat race in 1995. He backed a redistricting bill that reshaped the 13th District to include all of Chicago's lakefront from the Indiana border to North Michigan Avenue, so as to include the neighborhood where many of Chicago's richest and most prominent civic leaders (and campaign contributors) lived. The redistricting reduced the district's black percentage from 74 percent to 58 percent. He supported Todd Stroger for Cook County Board president over a reform candidate in 2006, when Stroger was put on the ballot to replace his incumbent father after his death. Alinsky assumed that the machine would always be there and believed you must stir up opposition to it. Obama assumed that the machine would always be there and that if you can't beat 'em then you must join 'em--or at least do business with 'em. There's an obvious contrast here between Obama and Sarah Palin, who defeated both of her predecessors as governor in 2006 and chartered a clear course of reform.
Questions: Why should we be obliged to take a reverent view toward community organizing when Obama evidently did not? And what basis is there in his career to see Obama as a reformer?
By Michael Barone