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Is Obama another Saul Alinsky? Saul who?

Saul Alinsky

It’s usually assumed that Joe Biden will be back on the Dem ticket this time. You’ve probably heard a contrary rumor, sometimes called the switcheroo and denied by all concerned, in which Hillary Clinton become the veep candidate and Biden slides into her current job as secretary of state. But Newt Gingrich has a different idea.

Gingrich is trying very hard to put Saul Alinsky on the Dem ticket. He’s been campaigning for Alinsky for several weeks but it became too obvious to ignore on the night of Gingrich’s big win in South Carolina when he drew this distinction between himself and the president:

“The founding fathers of America are the source from which we draw our understanding of America. [Obama] draws his from Saul Alinsky, radical left-wingers and people who don’t like the classical America.”

On Sunday, on “Meet the Press,” David Gregory asked Gingrich about that message and he replied:

“What I said last night is the truth. Nobody in the elite media wants to cover it. Nobody’s ever gone back and looked at what Saul Alinsky stands for. Nobody ever asks what ‘neighborhood organizer’ meant. He wasn’t organizing Boys and Girls Clubs. He was teaching political radicalism. It explains his entire administration. He is who he is. It’s — you know, it’s not that he’s a bad human being, my impression is that he has a good family, that he really loves his children and his wife, that he’s a very pleasant person in some ways. But the objective fact is he believes in a very radical vision of America’s future that is fundamentally different from probably 80 percent of this country.”

And on the same morning, on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Gingrich said: “The values that [Obama] believes in, the Saul Alinsky radical values that are at the heart of Obama, are a disaster.”

He has kept it up all this week, dropping Alinsky into his rhetoric as he tries to make the case to Floridian Repubs that he, and not Mitt Romney, is the electable one.

Perhaps Gingrich is right about the percentage of Americans who share Alinskyite values. But a much larger percentage have never heard of Saul Alinsky. And relatively few of them will rush out and read Alinsky’s signature 1946 work, “Reveille for Radicals.” Perhaps it is sufficient, for Gingrich’s purposes that, to his target audience, Alinsky’s name may sound vaguely Jewish or Russian. Of course, I can’t prove that, but I don’t guess Gingrich can exactly prove that Obama is practicing Alinsky-ism as president.

On the other hand, there is no question that in his days as a young community organizer, Obama studied and was influenced by Alinskyism.

Saul Alinsky, who died when Obama was 11 years old, is often called the father of modern American community organizing. Obama was indeed a community organizer as a young man. And, so far as we know, Obama did not organize any boys and girls clubs. And indeed, according to this long piece by Ryan Lizza when he wrote for The New Republic, Obama was recruited and taught during his early Chicago period by Alinsky admirers. So who was Alinsky?

Alinky’s past

Saul Alinsky was, indeed, a child of Russian Jewish immigrants. He grew up in Chicago, where he also did much of his work. After dropping out of grad school archaeology and working briefly as a criminologist, then as a union organizer, he drifted into his life’s work as a more general organizer of the powerless, first in Chicago and then in various locales around the country. Alinsky can be safely described as a lefty and a radical.

He wasn’t a Marxist but he was deeply critical of capitalism. Mostly, he was interested in empowering the powerless. He was a skilled agitator who worked to get the poor and underprivileged riled up enough to get organized and force change. He preached non-violence and his techniques were designed to work within the U.S. democratic system. He stressed the importance of identifying self-interest and organizing around it because he believed that while many people like to ascribe their actions to altruistic motives, they are really moved by self-interest.

The Lizza piece gives the partial lie to Gingrich’s statement that no one in the media (excusez moi, the elite media), has paid attention to Alinsky’s influence on Obama. From the 2008 Lizza piece:

 “Obama so mastered the workshops on power that he later taught them himself. On his campaign website, one can find a photo of Obama in a classroom teaching students Alinskian methods. He stands in front of a blackboard on which he has written, ‘Power Analysis’ and ‘Relationships Built on Self Interest,’ an idea illustrated by a diagram of the flow of money from corporations to the mayor.

“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. For instance, Alinsky relished baiting politicians or low-level bureaucrats into public meetings where they would be humiliated. Obama found these ‘accountability sessions’ unsettling, even cruel. ‘Oftentimes, these elected officials didn’t have that much more power than the people they represented,’ he told me.”

Understanding Alinskyism

If you would like to understand Alinskyism, you can read the prologue to “Rules for Radicals” here. If it’s the Alinsky-Obama connection you’re after, the Lizza piece would be a decent starting point.

But note that Lizza (who now writes for the New Yorker) is just out online with major piece that will appear in this week’s New Yorker. The piece is based on internal White House documents and explores in detail how Obama actually functions as president on a day-to-day basis and how decisions are reached in the Obama White House.

It portrays Obama as a captive of the disastrous economy and the intensity of partisan warfare. Lizza relies on a top presidential scholar who argues that presidents have much less ability to lead by persuasion than most of us think. Here’s a taste of that theme that also summarizes Lizza’s ultimate conclusions about what kind of president Obama has been:

“George C. Edwards III, a political scientist at Texas A. & M., who has sparked a quiet revolution in the ways that academics look at Presidential leadership, argues in ‘The Strategic President’ that there are two ways to think about great leaders. The common view is of a leader whom Edwards calls ‘the director of change,’ someone who reshapes public opinion and the political landscape with his charisma and his powers of persuasion. Obama’s many admirers expected him to be just this.

“Instead, Obama has turned out to be what Edwards calls ‘a facilitator of change.’ The facilitator is acutely aware of the constraints of public opinion and Congress. He is not foolish enough to believe that one man, even one invested with the powers of the Presidency, can alter the fundamentals of politics. Instead, ‘facilitators understand the opportunities for change in their environments and fashion strategies and tactics to exploit them.’

“Directors are more like revolutionaries. Facilitators are more like tacticians. Directors change the system. Facilitators work the system. Obama’s first three years as President are the story of his realization of the limits of his office, his frustration with those constraints, and, ultimately, his education in how to successfully operate within them. A close look at the choices Obama made on domestic policy, based on a review of hundreds of pages of internal White House documents, reveals someone who is canny and tough — but who is not the President his most idealistic supporters thought they had elected.”

As portrayed here, Obama came into office really believing that there was a way, through his own attitude and leadership, to get past the partisan deadlocks and produce legislation that included must-haves from both liberals and conservatives, Dems and Repubs. But he was wrong.  Lizza concludes that:

“Predictions that Obama would usher in a new era of post-partisan consensus politics now seem not just naïve but delusional.”

But, of course, because I was working on this piece, I rushed through the new Lizza piece looking for echoes of Alinskyism. Sorry, Mr. Gingrich. Maybe Lizza — despite access to a huge number of internal documents, including the decision memos that are sent to the president by his staff and how Obama responded to them — was duped. I can’t really picture the White House’s agenda in agreeing to the piece, although in the end it reaches a conclusion that the White House will like.

But the Alinskyism, it just ain’t in there.

Still, I expect Gingrich will continue to try to make Alinsky famous.

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