Saturday, March 29, 2014

Barack Obama: "What I am constantly trying to do is balance a hard head with a big heart"

I mentioned the other day that, as we begin to see the Obama Doctrine unfold, we can see the roots of President Obama's time spent as a community organizer come into play. In the picture above, the young Chicago lawyer is teaching a class on "power analysis." Right under the title, you'll see that he's talking about "relationships built on self interest." Those are critical components of what we are watching unfold on a global scale right now.

The best article I've seen that unpacks the President's thinking in this area is one that was written by Ryan Lizza way back in 2007 titled The Agitator. It is where I first saw Michelle Obama's great quote: "Barack is not a politician first and foremost. He's a community activist exploring the viability of politics to make change." The Obama Doctrine is firmly rooted in what the President learned as a community activist.

Lizza outlines some of the things Barack Obama learned from Gerald Kellman, Mike Kruglik and Gregory Galluzzo - the Saul Alinsky acolytes he worked with when he first moved to Chicago.
The first and most fundamental lesson Obama learned was to reassess his understanding of power. Horwitt says that, when Alinsky would ask new students why they wanted to organize, they would invariably respond with selfless bromides about wanting to help others. Alinsky would then scream back at them that there was a one-word answer: "You want to organize for power!"...

The other fundamental lesson Obama was taught is Alinsky's maxim that self-interest is the only principle around which to organize people... Obama was a fan of Alinsky's realistic streak. "The key to creating successful organizations was making sure people's self-interest was met," he told me, "and not just basing it on pie-in-the-sky idealism. So there were some basic principles that remained powerful then, and in fact I still believe in."
I've written before about the President's affirmation of the power of partnership as an alternative to the power of dominance. We can also see that whether he is working with world leaders to engage them in applying pressure to the offenders of international norms or pointing out to Russia, Iran, Syria that it is in their self interests to cooperate with the global community, it is these principles at work. As an example, here's how the President summarized his analysis of Iran's self interests.
I think it's entirely legitimate to say that this is a regime that does not share our worldview or our values. I do think...that as we look at how they operate and the decisions they've made over the past three decades, that they care about the regime's survival. They're sensitive to the opinions of the people and they are troubled by the isolation that they're experiencing. They know, for example, that when these kinds of sanctions are applied, it puts a world of hurt on them. They are able to make decisions based on trying to avoid bad outcomes from their perspective. So if they're presented with options that lead to either a lot of pain from their perspective, or potentially a better path, then there's no guarantee that they can't make a better decision.
Many pundits have claimed that Europe's economy is too tied to Russia for them to ever participate in sanctions that would be onerous enough to have an impact. The President's entire speech in Brussels was aimed at demonstrating how it is in Europe's self interest to risk the possibility of short-term sacrifice for long-term gain. Here's how he ended that speech.
If we hold firm to our principles, and are willing to back our beliefs with courage and resolve, then I have no doubt that hope will overcome fear, and freedom will continue to triumph over tyranny – because that is what forever stirs the human heart.
That quote points out a way in which Lizza says that Barack Obama parted ways with Alinsky.
But, although he was a first-class student of Alinsky's method, Obama also saw its limits. It appealed to his head but not his heart.
We know from the President's biography that while he was at Columbia he became somewhat of a hermit as he sorted out his own identity and place in the world. In trying to reconcile his roots as the son of a Kansas mother and Kenyan father, he found that place deep inside himself - no matter the particulars of genetics and geography - we all share as human beings. That is the heart of humanity's interconnectedness around which President Obama continually asks us to gather to sort through our conflicts. It is the basis of our partnership.

And so, in combining the realist's analysis of power and self interest with the idealist's vision of a core human connection, Barack Obama ended his conversation with Lizza saying: "What I am constantly trying to do is balance a hard head with a big heart." I believe that is the balance that is so profoundly powerful in speeches like the one he gave in Brussels.


  1. Incredible essay about an incredible man. It is his big heart Republicans cannot understand, only his power which they seek to destroy. That's why he did healthcare, his heart, but also, he knew it would appeal to our self-interest and we are seeing this unfold. Great insight! Thank you.

  2. Wow, Nancy, just wow. Do you even know what a great writer you are? This is brilliant.

  3. "The key to creating successful organizations was making sure people's self-interest was met," he told me, "and not just basing it on pie-in-the-sky idealism.

    would be great if elements of the left would take this to heart.



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