At the Republican National Convention in the run-up to the last US Presidential election, Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Palin both made condescending references to Barack Obama's experience as a 'community organiser'. Giuliani sounded particularly incredulous: he WORKED?, as a community ORGANISER?
Rudy Giuliani on community organising
Sarah Palin played the crowd in the same sort of way, comparing being a Mayor in Alaska to being "a bit like a community organiser, except you have actual responsibilities."
Sarah Palin: "Sort of like a community organiser"
But we know who had the last laugh, and many have suggested that Obama's most powerful asset in the election was not his soaring eloquence, but lessons learned from his experience as a community organiser in Chicago.
I remember reading an interview with a party activist around this time last year. She gave testimony to the power of Obama's 'ground plan', and the sophisticated and coordinated way he organised party activists, both online and off, to 'get out the vote', particularly in key marginals like Florida and Ohio, which has been a stumbling point for Democratic candidates in the past. The activist ended the interview with a telling remark: The Republicans want to know what a community organiser does- well on Nov 5th they are going to find out.
But what did Obama do as a community organiser? His autobiography, Dreams from my Father (a sublime piece of writing), gives a detailed account of the inner changes he went through in the process of community organising, but offers relatively few details about his day-to-day activities.
At a practical level, we know that most of his community organising was church-related, that he played an instrumental role in getting asbestos removed from a housing estate in the south of Chicago, and creating a self-help service to get steel workers back to work. More theoretically, in 1990 Obama derided "the old individualistic bootstrap myth touted by conservatives", and told a reporter in 1995 that "it is always easier to organise people around intolerance, narrow mindedness and false nostalgia".
Rather than focus on tangible achievements, perhaps the process of community organising itself was key, not just because of what it taught Obama about organising people, but what he learned about connecting with human beings at the level of hopes and fears.
In his autobiography, Obama reflects on the importance of putting his ideas about stronger communities into practice:
"The continuing struggle to align word and action, our heartfelt desires with a workable plan- didn’t self-esteem finally depend on just this?”
Obama's role as a community organiser was powerful because it allowed him to embody this kind of 'yes we can' message. He sounded credible, because he had lived the message, or at least tried to. Indeed, last week, as part of a wider argument about creating more space in the public sphere for vexed moral and spiritual questions, Michael Sandel remarked that a key to Obama's success was his ability to be intellectually coherent on policy issues while simultaneously connecting with people at this deeper human level that asks why we are here, and how we should best live our lives.
On so called wedge issues like abortion and gay marriage Obama always said that people can disagree about such issues without disrespecting each other, which sounds obvious, but as Mathew Taylor indicated at the Sandel talk, it is rare for people for agree about what they disagree about, and, by inference, it is only really when they do so that this mutual respect can emerge.
Finally, while Obama's formative influence as a community organiser is well known, we don't often hear about the impact of his participation in the Saguoro seminars at Harvard University - a five-year long process of dialogue aimed at understanding the role of social capital in improving the quality of social and civic life in America. An article on Obama at the Saguoro seminars suggests that they made a deep impact on the 44th President, so we can be sure that Obama is familiar with the idea of social capital, and moreover that he knows his Coleman from his Putnam.
For example, Putnam argued that television had a corrosive impact on social capital, and it is noteworthy that Barack and Michele Obama's speeches repeatedly include references to turning off the TV. For instance: "If parents don't parent and turn off the TV set and instil in their child a thirst for knowledge, we will not succeed."
So I suspect what Obama learned as a community organiser was a combination of know-how about the logistics and administration of organising, deep appreciation for people and communities, and the importance of not watching too much television. More importantly for RSA purposes however, he attempted to close his own social aspiration gap, and it eventually took him to the White House.