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Obama the Organizer

by Cally Carswell 

Tags: Politics, Election 2008, RNC, Republican National Convention, Rudy Giuliani, Sarah Palin, George Pataki, John McCain, Barack Obama, military service, community organizer, The Nation,

Obama the OrganizerAfter lavishing praise on John McCain for his military service, Republicans took the opportunity to ridicule Barack Obama’s work as a community organizer on day three of the GOP convention.

Rudy Giuliani, George Pataki, and Sarah Palin all took turns kicking dirt on Obama’s early days on Chicago’s South Side. Pataki said, “What in God’s name is a community organizer? I don’t even know if that’s a job.” Giuliani chimed in, “He worked as a community organizer. What? Maybe this is the first problem on the resume.” And Palin drove home the point, “I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a community organizer, expect that you have actual responsibilities.”

These were sharp jabs at Obama meant to stoke doubt about his readiness to be president. But the comments left any details about what Obama actually did as an organizer to the imagination. So what in God’s name did Obama do on the South Side and does it matter?

Writing for the New Republic, John B. Judis argues that the important thing to understand about Obama’s time as an organizer is not what he did, but why he quit. Judis describes Obama as “a disillusioned activist who fashioned his political identity not as an extension of community organizing but as a wholesale rejection of it.” His essay details how Obama’s organizing work led him to believe politics, not organizing, was his best opportunity to produce broad-based change. An article published last year by the Nation and another at the New Republic also take stabs at fleshing out Obama’s organizing days.

In response to the convention speeches, the Nation quotes Obama as saying, “I would argue that doing work in the community to try and create jobs, to bring people together, to rejuvenate communities that have fallen on hard times, to set up job-training programs in areas that have been hard hit when the steel plants closed, that that's relevant only in understanding where I'm coming from, who I believe in, who I'm fighting for and why I'm in this race.”

Weigh in: How is Obama's community organizing experience relevant in this election?

Image by Ari Levinson, licensed under GNU Free Documentation License.

suzy garfinkle_2
9/13/2008 11:10:55 AM

What galls me the most is that Giuliani, Palin, Pataki, etc. are so comfortable insulting all the community organizers that do important work throughout the country. Weren't the abolitionists and the suffragists all community organizers. How about the people who cleaned up New Orleans after the Bush administration screwed up? Come to think of it, you'd have to say that the group who crashed the plane into a field in Pennsylvania on 9/11 were an emergency ad hoc group of community organizers. I'd have to argue that almost all of the truly important work gets started by community organizers long before the government clues in! Clearly the Republicans don't mind insulting us because they assume that community organizers are all Democrats anyway. And the beauty is, that we will prove the power of community organizers on election day when we oust them from power and elevate one of our own! Power to the people!!!

j k laurila
9/11/2008 9:42:37 PM

Obama has examined himself, his experience, and his relationship to the world in order to better understand "truth." If he had not had the experience of trying to resolve community issues doing grassroots work, he wouldn't have the same appreciation for what volunteer groups can and cannot do. As a result, he has learned what is needed at the local level in order to address what is wrong, and an understanding of government -- as he does as a constitutional lawyer -- and the responsibility government has to protect its citizens.

cally carswell
9/11/2008 8:52:14 PM

From Ben Smith at Politico.com, McCain's recent comments about Obama's organizing experience: "Of course I respect community organizers. Of course I respect people who serve their communities. Sentaor Obama’s service in that area is outstanding," he said. He also said the campaign's negative tone "would have been very different if Senator Obama had accepted my request to appear in town hall meetings across America." http://www.politico.com/blogs/bensmith/0908/McCain_I_respect_community_organizers.html#comments

bruce freeman
9/11/2008 12:06:23 PM

Rudy Giuliani, as former NYC mayor, knows full well the benefits of community organizers in providing housing, recreation and health and services in disadvantaged neighborhoods. He and his staff participated closely with community organizations and their leaders on a regular basis. His faux disdain for community organizers (and the organizations they represent)is simply election-year politics.

rick raab-faber
9/11/2008 11:37:18 AM

"How is it not relevant?" is my question. I can see how for people like Giuliani, Pataki, and Palin, it may not be. Why would wealthy folk like Rudy and George care about communities being organized? It has little to do with them, but they ignore it at their own political peril. And don't get me wrong. I love Alaska and I support saving the ANWR and all. But, Alaska is a very unique state with its own very distinct set of issues and problems. Running a town or even the state up there does not give one any sort of great experience that is needed for running the rest of the country. Getting into the communities in the lower 49, and seeing the problems in congress firtshand -- those are the things that are relevant. Personally I think the GOP picked Palin as an easy door into ANWR for drilling.