This is What Happens When You Elect a Community Organizer President

Some fantastic nuggets in an essay by David Bromwich at the New York Review of Books on what the State of the Union speech says about how Barack Obama will likely govern over the next two (and possibly six) years. This is one of them:

A main inference from the State of the Union is that in 2011 and 2012, the president will not initiate. He will broker. Every policy recommendation will be supported and, so far as possible, clinched by the testimony of a panel of experts. There were signs of this pattern in the group of former secretaries of state, including Henry Kissinger and Colin Powell, whom the president brought in to endorse the START nuclear pact; in the generals who were called on to solidify support for the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell; and in Bill Clinton holding a presidential press briefing on the economy. Obama, on such occasions, serves as host and introducer; he leaves the podium to the experts. The idea is to overwhelm us with expertise. In this way, a president may lighten the burden of decision and control by easing the job of persuasion into other hands. Obama seems to believe that the result of being seen in that attitude will do nothing but good for his stature.

This may be what he learned as a community organizer, to let others do the heavy lifting. Indeed, Bromwich said Obama appears to be modeling himself expressly after Ronald Reagan, who was master of the feel-good, empty phrase. Along those lines, Bromwich also notes this:

Barack Obama, starting in 2002—the year he declared at a Chicago rally his opposition to the coming war against Iraq—had a keen eye on his political rise, but he had slender experience and a narrow focus disguised by inspirational special effects. In earlier years, he was protected by the Chicago Democratic machine; after 2004, he was shepherded by leaders of the Democratic party who disliked the Clintons or feared that Hillary Clinton could never win a presidential election. His apparent convictions—-on the environment, on the Middle East, on nuclear proliferation: matters of more concern to him than health care—were resonant and sincere but they had never been brought to a test. It turned out that few of his convictions were as strong as Obama thought they were. [Emphasis mine – CHF]

“It turned out that few of his convictions were as strong as Obama thought they were.” He never really had to defend or market his positions, never really had to convince others of what he believed. Was never really challenged and never really had to accomplish something in the face of adversity. As a leader.

I think there was the presumption that because Obama was a “community organizer” (I’m surrounded by people who aspire to be community organizers at a seminary which claims to train them, and I’m still not entirely sure what exactly that is), he was for justice and peace and whatever wonderful things came bundled with that. And that he would lead forcefully like that, though I don’t think forceful leading is part of what a community organizer is. He was a blank slate upon which a lot hope was projected. There were a lot of people hearing Obama and thinking he actually meant something (possibly even Obama himself), and I think it’s become clear he doesn’t really mean anything. Or, as Bromwich concludes:

Today no one can easily say who Barack Obama is or what he stands for; and the coming year is unlikely to offer many clues, since all the thoughts of Obama in 2011 appear to concern Obama in 2012.