Obama: Sailor for Social Change and Movement Man

Community Organizing Organizing

newyorkNew Orleans    A lengthy interview with President Obama by David Remnick in The New Yorker has attracted a lot of attention for this detail and that, largely about the atmospherics and attitudes of the often inscrutably aloof Obama and how it impacts his practice as president.  More interesting to me were insights that Obama revealed about his view of how social change is created, since that’s really the business I’m in too.

            After an exposition of the “messiness of getting something done” largely referring to the legislative and policy process of government which Obama says is neither clean nor pure “Because, if you’re doing big, hard things, then there is going to be some hair on it,” he gets to the heart of his view of making change. 

“…the nature of not only politics but, I think social change of any sort is that it doesn’t move in a straight line, and that those who are most successful typically are tacking like a sailor towards a particular direction but have to take into account winds and currents and occasionally the lack of any wind, so that you’re just sitting there for a while, and sometimes you’re being blown all over the place.”

The deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, Ben Rhodes, is quoted by Remnick saying that he believes that, “The President subscribes less to a great-man theory of history and more to a great-movement theory of history – that changes happens when people force it or circumstances do.”  Remnick then adds that, “Later, Obama told me, ‘I’m not sure Ben is right about that, I believe in both.'”

I’m not sure that’s the case.  Remnick then quotes a speech from Obama to students in Israel saying that “political leaders will never take risks if the people do not push them to take some risks.”  Borrowing from sports, Obama talks about “creating space” for leaders and others to move from his position as President.

I find this fascinating, compelling, and somewhat depressing. 

Fascinating, because when all is said and done, I appreciate and applaud a President from his position at the apex of power in the world, still talking about how to organize social change as if he were still in the streets of Chicago as a community organizer.  It’s a relief to hear these sentiments from his mouth again, regardless.  I think we may not hear such a frank, even if flawed appraisal, from a President again in our lifetimes.

Compelling, because too few acknowledge the vital importance of peoples’ movements in all social change, and despite Obama’s vacillating in the face of being labeled a movement-man, he’s running from something he can’t escape since it is so much a fundamental part of his message repeatedly that I actually have to believe it reflects a real emotional, even if uncomfortable, analysis on his part of social change.

Depressing, because I fear Obama didn’t learn enough as an organizer and ends up, perhaps inadvertently, excusing his role as too passive while “the lack of any wind” or movement leaves him “just sitting there for a while.”  This notion of his role, more as organizer or point guard in “creating space” for others to act and presumably for movements to gain force and gather more wind at their backs. 

So, yes, he can speak “truth to power,” which he does so well, but in “creating space” he can do so much more than move pieces at the margins.  He’s certainly right that he can’t mandate change and that to presume that he could would be anti-democratic nor can he make movements suddenly appear, but he could do so much more than just creating space to resource change, to not just influence but agitate and legitimize both change and the change makers, to support and sustain the infrastructure of change, and to put the people in place who can move it forward, when the winds do pick up force.

Finally, as a sailor for social change, Obama could be a whole lot clearer about exactly the direction he’s moving towards and the ultimate destination, and that’s not just organizing, that’s leadership.