Monday, August 22, 2011

"Leading from behind"

Back when President Obama first announced that the U.S. would be involved in the NATO-led intervention in Libya, one of his advisors called it leading from behind. Of course, that gave the wingers a case of the vapors.

But it struck me as a powerful statement - especially coming from a President who had a background in community organizing. That's because a couple of years ago the organization I run had started to work on expanding our mission from direct service to youth and families into doing some community organizing around the barriers that so often get in their way. For example, we held forums to highlight the over-representation of African American youth in the criminal justice system and the educational achievement gap that is so striking for African American boys.

One of the things I realized in this work was that I had to resist the kinds of approaches that delineated what needed to be done and ask people to join our bandwagon. That's what you do in public relations, but it doesn't work for community organizing. The whole point of the later is to spur people to take action on their own self-interests. To do that successfully, it is important to give them a forum, help them identify their common self interests, and assist them in organizing to make changes. But if you get out ahead of the community in terms of solutions, you make them tools in your own process rather than empowering them to implement their own agenda. I found that its a hard line to walk...this leading from behind.

And yet that's exactly what I think is the appropriate role for the U.S. in the spread of democracy. We found out what a colossal failure it is to impose it from the outside based on our experience in Iraq. Now, in Libya, we're seeing how it can be done successfully.

But it begs the question for me about how you "lead from behind" when it comes to domestic issues. In thinking about how President Obama has/has not done that, I reflect on his first two years in office. The first thing confronting the administration was our economic freefall. In some senses, there was not time for leading from behind on that one. Something needed to be done. And it had to happen quickly. And so we got the Recovery Act.

Then came health care reform. It seemed to me like that was something Obama was determined to do from the get-go. He knew it had failed too many times and so, like with the stimulus, he pushed as hard as he could and got it done.

But take a look at what he did with the repeal of DADT. In that case he essentially asked the military to take a look at whether a policy of subterfuge and lying was good for the institution. Was it in their self-interest? When they decided it was not, he had the most important ally he could find in putting and end to it. In other words, he led from behind.

With the election of a majority of Republicans in the House, President Obama recognized that the people had empowered Congress to focus on deficit reduction. And so he essentially said, "If that's what you want, I'll join you. But here's how I would do it." He knows this is an important concern for many Americans - as is the need to create jobs. And so he's asking us to get involved in telling our members of Congress what we want to see happen to address those concerns. He's leading from behind.

Overall, I'd suggest that President Obama is most comfortable in this role of leading from behind. Please note that it is NOT an abdication of leadership. Its just not the kind we're used to. As I've said on many occasions, its the implementation of partnership power over dominance in a leader.

Its been clear for a long time now that President Obama thinks that what most often stymies our ability to solve problems are the power plays that seem to define the game in Washington. He knows that if we can talk to each other reasonably, we can reach solutions. But the Republicans find that possibility to be a major threat to their power because it rests on voters defining their own self interests rather than being manipulated to do the bidding of the rich and powerful.

In other words, President Obama is doing everything he can to restore the ideal of democracy in this country by leading from behind. That's what I saw in him early on and is why he has my unqualified and total support. Over anything else I value in terms of policy, its democracy that I'm rooting for!


  1. Actually, I think Obama did "lead from behind" when it came to the healthcare fight. He was roundly criticized from several corners for allowing Congress to take the lead in fashioning the final bill. But he took this path precisely because past efforts failed repeatedly when Presidents tried to "lead from the front" (most notably with respect to Clinton's healthcare plan).

    I find it ironic that the right wing critique of Obama on Libya is amazing similar to the left wing critique of Obama on Health Care.

  2. Great point about health care reform!

    And on the critiques from left and right - I've always found it interesting that what the left likes in foreign policy - they hate on the domestic front. I noticed that early on in the Obama administration.