Barack Obama, Organization Man

Do you know what a community organizer does? And if so, do you know what it is about being a community organizer that might qualify one to be president of the United States?

My guess is most people don’t know, and they’re not sure what Sen. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaWhy payroll tax cut opponents may want to reconsider Michelle Obama, Sanders, Kasich to be featured on first night of Democratic convention: report Graham says he appreciates Trump orders, but 'would much prefer a congressional agreement' MORE (D-Ill.) means when he frequently cites his time as an organizer in Chicago as one of his qualifications for the White House.
I didn’t know either, which is why I went to Chicago recently to learn about Obama’s organizing years, from 1985 to 1988.

And after looking at Obama’s experience there, and talking to the people who worked closely with him, and reading Obama’s own account of the period — well, I’m still not sure what being a community organizer has to do with being president.


Obama accomplished a couple of things during those years in Chicago.

He led a drive to push the city to open a job-placement center on the far South Side, where one hadn’t been before.

And he helped lead a drive to push the city to clean asbestos out of a housing project in the same area.

He took part in a number of other projects. Some big ones, like a plan to bring back jobs for steelworkers hit by plant closings, went nowhere. Others, like plans for after-school programs, were group efforts.

But most people agree his two greatest hits were the job-placement center and the asbestos cleanup.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not the kind of stuff that would normally be a big part of one’s argument to become president.


On the other hand, it was in Chicago that Obama began to show what is perhaps his greatest gift: his ability to convince people to believe that it is possible to change things.

In his 1995 autobiography, Dreams From My Father, he wrote that when he went to Chicago, he couldn’t quite explain to his friends what community organizers did.

“Instead, I’d pronounce on the need for change,” Obama wrote. “Change in the White House, where Reagan and his minions were carrying on their dirty deeds. Change in the Congress, compliant and corrupt. Change in the mood of the country, manic and self-absorbed. Change won’t come from the top, I would say. Change will come from a mobilized grass roots.”

Does that sound familiar? Just substitute “Bush” for “Reagan” and you’ve got a pretty close approximation of the Obama campaign.

Obama has been a “change” candidate all his life.

And he could be very persuasive. “He didn’t have experience,” one woman who worked with Obama and had a part in his hiring told me. “But he had a sensitivity that allowed us to believe that he could do the job.”

That sounds familiar, too. Even then, Obama was change you can believe in.

But there’s a question of how much change Obama really wanted to bring about.

Working in a part of Chicago beset by a culture of dysfunction, his agenda for change was strikingly conventional.

More summer jobs. More city spending on this. More spending on that.

In Chicago, Obama learned to organize. But when you ask what he was organizing for, you come up with the same-old, same-old stuff.

And when a truly innovative proposal for change came along — the welfare reform of 1996 — Obama wanted to water it down so it didn’t “punish people.”

In Chicago, Obama’s talent was for convincing people to believe in change, not in actually changing things.

York is a White House correspondent for National Review. His column appears in The Hill each week.