Saturday, October 1, 2011

Obama: Circa 1995

I had the wonderful surprise today of finding an article written about Obama back in December 1995 just as he was making the decision to run for the Illinois Senate. These looks back at what Obama was doing/saying back then (and what people were saying about him) are priceless because they deepen our understanding of this man who would later be elected President.

Obama doesn't need another career. As a civil rights lawyer, teacher, philanthropist, and author, he already has no trouble working 12-hour days. He says he is drawn to politics, despite its superficialities, as a means to advance his real passion and calling: community organization.

Obama thinks elected officials could do much to overcome the political paralysis of the nation's black communities. He thinks they could lead their communities out of twin culs-de-sac: the unrealistic politics of integrationist assimilation—which helps a few upwardly mobile blacks to "move up, get rich, and move out"—and the equally impractical politics of black rage and black nationalism—which exhorts but does not organize ordinary folks or create realistic agendas for change.

Obama, whose political vision was nurtured by his work in the 80s as an organizer in the far-south-side communities of Roseland and Altgeld Gardens, proposes a third alternative. Not new to Chicago—which is the birthplace of community organizing—but unusual in electoral politics, his proposal calls for organizing ordinary citizens into bottom-up democracies that create their own strategies, programs, and campaigns and that forge alliances with other disaffected Americans. Obama thinks elected officials—even a state senator—can play a critical catalytic role in this rebuilding...

What makes Obama different from other progressive politicians is that he doesn't just want to create and support progressive programs; he wants to mobilize the people to create their own. He wants to stand politics on its head, empowering citizens by bringing together the churches and businesses and banks, scornful grandmothers and angry young. Mostly he's running to fill a political and moral vacuum. He says he's tired of seeing the moral fervor of black folks whipped up—at the speaker's rostrum and from the pulpit—and then allowed to dissipate because there's no agenda, no concrete program for change...

Obama himself says he's not certain that his experimental plunge into electoral politics can produce the kind of community empowerment and economic change he's after.

"Three major doubts have been raised," he said. The first is whether in today's political environment—with its emphasis on media and money—a grass-roots movement can even be created. Will people still answer the call of participatory politics?

"Second," Obama said, "many believe that the country is too racially polarized to build the kind of multiracial coalitions necessary to bring about massive economic change.

"Third, is it possible for those of us working through the Democratic Party to figure out ways to use the political process to create jobs for our communities?"...

"In America," Obama says, "we have this strong bias toward individual action. You know, we idolize the John Wayne hero who comes in to correct things with both guns blazing. But individual actions, individual dreams, are not sufficient. We must unite in collective action, build collective institutions and organizations."...

"What we need in America, especially in the African-American community, is a moral agenda that is tied to a concrete agenda for building and rebuilding our communities," he said. "We have moved beyond the clarion call stage that was needed during the civil rights movement. Now, like Nelson Mandela in South Africa, we must move into a building stage. We must invest our energy and resources in a massive rebuilding effort and invent new mechanisms to strengthen and hasten this community-building effort...

"Now an agenda for getting our fair share is vital. But to work, it can't see voters or communities as consumers, as mere recipients or beneficiaries of this change. It's time for politicians and other leaders to take the next step and to see voters, residents, or citizens as producers of this change. The thrust of our organizing must be on how to make them productive, how to make them employable, how to build our human capital, how to create businesses, institutions, banks, safe public spaces—the whole agenda of creating productive communities. That is where our future lies.

"The right wing talks about this but they keep appealing to that old individualistic bootstrap myth: get a job, get rich, and get out. Instead of investing in our neighborhoods, that's what has always happened. Our goal must be to help people get a sense of building something larger.

"The political debate is now so skewed, so limited, so distorted," said Obama. "People are hungry for community; they miss it. They are hungry for change.

"What if a politician were to see his job as that of an organizer," he wondered, "as part teacher and part advocate, one who does not sell voters short but who educates them about the real choices before them?...

"Now we have to take this same language—these same values that are encouraged within our families—of looking out for one another, of sharing, of sacrificing for each other—and apply them to a larger society. Let's talk about creating a society, not just individual families, based on these values. Right now we have a society that talks about the irresponsibility of teens getting pregnant, not the irresponsibility of a society that fails to educate them to aspire for more."...

"Any solution to our unemployment catastrophe must arise from us working creatively within a multicultural, interdependent, and international economy. Any African-Americans who are only talking about racism as a barrier to our success are seriously misled if they don't also come to grips with the larger economic forces that are creating economic insecurity for all workers—whites, Latinos, and Asians. We must deal with the forces that are depressing wages, lopping off people's benefits right and left, and creating an earnings gap between CEOs and the lowest-paid worker that has risen in the last 20 years from a ratio of 10 to 1 to one of better than 100 to 1...

"These are mean, cruel times, exemplified by a 'lock 'em up, take no prisoners' mentality that dominates the Republican-led Congress. Historically, African-Americans have turned inward and towards black nationalism whenever they have a sense, as we do now, that the mainstream has rebuffed us, and that white Americans couldn't care less about the profound problems African-Americans are facing."

"But cursing out white folks is not going to get the job done...We've got some hard nuts-and-bolts organizing and planning to do. We've got communities to build."

Once again I am reminded of what Michelle Obama once said about her husband:

Barack is not a politician first and foremost. He's a community activist exploring the viability of politics to make change.


  1. Good find! I enjoyed reading it.

    Sophie Amrain

  2. Great find, yep. So much of that, what he said, is simply not understood by many of his most vociferous attackers. They don't even seem capable of comprehending it.

    I went into a few "Obamaisthesux" diaries a few months ago and asked them what they would do, if the president proposed something they really liked. Most said they wouldn't listen, one said that if he actually did it, he would applaud it. Only one out of who knows how many said they would work to make it happen.

    I think, though, one of the most illuminating posts I've seen over the months was from one "I'm so disappointed" person. She was saying this and that, and then something to the effect of... "Since Obama isn't doing it, do you know what this means? WE are going to have to do it! We can't depend on him to change things, so we have get out there and do it ourselves!"

    Blah, blah blah... totally offended at the thought of having to help out, lol.

    Anyway, I'd like to see what the president writes about all this after his second term is over. What he think worked, what he would have done differently, all that stuff. It was an interesting idea (and I think he has done a lot of good, even without a lot of the support or the movement he may have envisioned).

    This is the aspect of the Obama campaign and um... philosophy, though, that most interested me from the beginning.

  3. Stunning and almost sad to think that so much of what he spoke about conditions in 1995 haven't changed at all for the better. Great find.

  4. Nanette - Good to see you!

    This is also what drew me to Obama. Prior to him I had all but given up on the idea of participatory democracy. So I get REALLY pissed off at the left that we have this opportunity now and they just can't seem to see it. When they get to the point of "I guess we'll have to do it," I want to say "Yeah - you finally got it!"

    As much as I dread the day Obama is out of office, I too can't wait to hear what he has to say and see what he decides to do with the rest of his life.

  5. Thank you Smartypants for writing this. This is why I believe there are so many people in Washington not telling the truth about Obama. The last thing they want is for 'the People'' to have a voice. Yet despite this, he's been able to pass legislation, and he now is taking this message to the people. He's telling us we have a choice to make this election. Do we come together as a nation to rebuild America, or we going to let the lobbyists, Wall Street, big business and the Republicans do everything they can to cut taxes while cutting services for everything that we need to survive?

  6. "This is why I believe there are so many people in Washington not telling the truth about Obama."

    Agreed, sjterrid. All of this talk about the President "rediscovering" his progressive roots is just nonsense. As this article has shown, he was ALWAYS on the side of the people. He was always telling us that we have to get out there and create a truly progressive nation.

    People like Greenwald and Hamsher and yes, sadly, Michael Moore want someone to come and do the heavy lifting for them. But because President Obama believes that the people have to do the heavy lifting, and not some "savior", he's now pilloried for not doing anything.

    My vote is with him in 2012.

  7. The disconnect between the so-called Left and the President's agenda is really astounding. Those of us who have failed to educate ourselves about our own president's philosophy have done a disservice to democracy. But, of course, we can always blame him and co. for "poor messaging."

    The greater sadness is to watch young people gathering in the OWS acting as though they are starting something revolutionary and CONTRARY to the involvement that President Obama is advocating here. They lost the message of his campaign and now, in a disorganized but hopefully ORGANIZABLE move, they are taking off the slippers and putting on their marching boots.

    I hope they can make an electoral connection that embraces the community organizing that the president is explaining here, and not the Libertarian and anarchistic (albeit heavily emotional and sincere) sign-waving of this inchoate demonstration.

    Further, I hope it neither dissipates into more apathy nor devolves into the violence that emboldens the Koch reactionaries.

  8. I read this article on paper, the week it came out in the Reader here in Chicago. I thought, "this sounds like a really unique and smart guy" and never forgot it.

  9. Hey Smartytoo - Love the moniker!!!!!

    And he has certainly proved that he's a really unique and smarty guy.