One of the minor casualties of the Obama administration has been the reputation of genuine “community organizers”. Before going any further, might the reader please try this test. Please name one other “community organizer” besides Barack Obama.
Most people will not be able to name a single one and for good reason. The overarching ethos of a “community organizer”, especially one trained in the Alinsky method, is to plant ideas in people’s minds, let them run with it and fade away. But as the New York Times recalled, the young Obama did not want to toil in obscurity and finish up like all those community organizers whose names you can’t remember — the kind who live out their old age with a cupful of money and barrel full of war stories. He wanted fame; position, to be on center stage.
Mr. Obama had risen to executive director of the Developing Communities group, but the demanding hours, small victories and low pay took a toll on him, and he decided to leave.
“‘We are not making large-scale change, and I want to be involved in doing that,’ ” Mr. Kellman said Mr. Obama had told him. …
Mr. Obama had mused to friends in Chicago about one day working for unions or becoming a preacher, a journalist or even a fiction writer. While there, he wrote short stories based on people he had encountered. “The stories were beautifully crafted and evocative,” said Mr. Kruglik.
But Mr. Obama decided on law school instead. Shortly before Mr. Obama left for Harvard, about 60 people attended a farewell reception for him at Altgeld Gardens. He told associates that he intended to return to Chicago once he earned his law degree to pursue a career “in public life.”
This was the moment of clear departure from the community organizing road. But let us pause for a moment and fix in our mind the existence of these beautiful, evocative short stories which Kellman describes for we will return to it later. The purpose of this digression into Obama’s “community organizing” past is to identify the leadership model he chose which was the complete the opposite of the anonymous behind the scenes community organizer. Obama’s chosen model for greatness was to become a charismatic leader.
A charismatic leader derives authority from himself; from an astounding life story, from attributes possessed by no other man. The approach has become common and we know the sort; the Native American who became a law professor and then Senator; the single mother who wanted to be a governor. The life-story is now standard, but Obama was clearly special. From the very beginning of his career Obama argued that his unique biography — his bi-racial parentage, foreign upbringing, his literary skills etc — made him a special person. By virtue of these gifts he could heal racial divisions; reach out to the Muslim world; bridge the gap between rich and poor and serve as a link between the generations.
By contrast most American presidents derived their greatness from the position, many simply political hacks who we remember today simply because they occupied the Oval Office. Obama marks the first time in recent memory when the office is deemed uplifted by the man and not the other way round. Charismatic leadership has its advantages, which is why it occurs repeatedly in history. It permits the charismatic person to “be bigger than the job” and do great things. Men with this attribute, like Alexander, Caesar or Napoleon seem to rise above the rules and constraints that bind mere human beings. It’s natural that Obama would prefer to be a ‘special’ president rather than an ordinary one.
Yet as someone said to a student who aspired to drop out of college “like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs”, you have to first be sure you can walk that walk before casting your academic career to the winds. Because charismatic leadership has some drawbacks. The most obvious being that since power flows from the person himself then when Rudy Giuliani publicly questioned Obama’s patriotism he was attacking the wellsprings of the administration.
When Giuliani told an audience ”I do not believe – and I know this is a horrible thing to say – but I do not believe that the President loves America,” he was inadvertently doing more than criticizing a president; he was in a manner of speaking, committing treason. The unprecedented firestorm of opprobrium that greeted Giuliani suggested that he had somehow hit a switch. It was like pushing an ordinary button in the wall and watching the skyscrapers out the window suddenly crumble in dust down into the ground.
What Giuliani had done was undermine Obama’s legitimacy. Because so much of Obama’s “power” comes from his special-ness that to question his patriotism is to strike at the basis for his governance. It was, as in a monarchy, tantamount to rebellion. The reason that similar remarks by Obama about George Bush’s patriotism evoked simple shrugs was because Bush was just an ordinary president, the latest in a line of politicians to occupy the office since George Washington.
But Obama is different. One cannot understand, for example, the vituperation vented by Dana Milbank at Scott Walker, calling him out for “cowardice”, arguing for his “disqualification” (yes those are the words) for the simple act of refusing to publicly repudiate Giuliani’s words about the president, unless one grasps this essential fact. Obama is different. The Obama phenomenon is founded so completely on his legend that to attack the legend is to undermine the very foundations of the tower on which he stands.
But this is not the first time the Obama myth has been directly impugned. The first major political figure to accidentally touch the Third Rail was Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu has become an extraordinary hate object in the press, not because of any views he may hold on policy, but because Netanyahu had the temerity to disrespect Obama. Netanyahu must have been astonished by the charge of electricity that gave back on him.
Disrespect America, even attack it if you want, and you will not receive a tenth such voltage as did Netanyahu. The torrent of hostility poured upon Netanyahu was so out of proportion to any conceivable offense, that he probably felt obliged to persist in coming, reasoning that he must be on to something. Yet the myth of the president has been crumbling abroad for some time. Readers will recall that Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande recently made the almost unheard-of move of negotiating directly with Vladimir Putin over Ukraine without receiving instructions from the “leader of the free world”.
This cannot but have confirmed the suspicions of the wily Vladimir Putin. Only two years ago, an NBC article described how Obama treated the Russian president like a flunkey. The link “http://worldnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/09/05/20342654-the-big-chill-a-dominant-obama-meets-a-cool-putin-at-g20”, no longer works (but available here in archive), but the articles citing it described how a Obama played power posture games with the old KGB operative, and the Russian must have wondered why he would engage in such juvenile games. Like Netanyahu, Putin might have suspected a reason for the over-reaction.
By now the Russian must have figured out that the Legend is Obama’s Achilles Heel. It’s Obama’s weakness and it is growing all the time. The president has been doubling down on his charismatic leadership model. When the president decided to pass Obamacare without a single Republican vote; by vowing to veto any attempts to amend his ‘signature’ legislation; by announcing he was going to throw open the borders to illegal aliens by executive action; by suggesting he would conclude an agreement with Iran without necessarily seeking Congressional approval — with each step he was progressively narrowing his basis for governance. He was isolating himself on the lonely rock that was his life-story.
Rather than standing foursquare on a wide, bipartisan consensus, he is ruling from a narrow circle of advisers on the residue of the legitimacy provided by his charisma. The authority for his actions is increasingly himself. This happens all the time with charismatic leaders. Hugo Chavez did it, and it leads to disaster. Because the day may come when someone may ask , “well where are all these beautiful and evocative short stories you wrote as an organizer?” Where are all the articles you wrote as President of the Harvard Law Review? And what was your legislative track record before becoming president? These questions are all off limits even though they are interrogatories of the most ordinary kind. And they are off limits for a reason. They undermine the root of the legend.
Obama’s vulnerability is America’s vulnerability. The really scary thing is not that Netanyahu or Giuliani should have stumbled onto it, but that Putin and Khamenei must of a certainty know it by now and are probably determined to exploit it. American credibility — and that of its cultural elite — now rests on a single point of failure: the narrative life history of the least vetted person in recent presidential politics. No republic, especially one as great as the United States, should ever be based on the such a fragile thing as the biography of a single man.
Truman was a haberdasher and high school graduate and yet he dropped the Atomic Bomb, not because of who he was personally but because of what he represented. Truman’s leadership model was not the charismatic variety but the Constitutional one. In a very real sense, Giuliani’s question about “loving America” is another way of asking if you know who you are working for. Past presidents did not delude themselves into thinking they graced America. They understood they were but weak human vessels who bore the burning, almost incandescent glory of a great nation, were given their moment in history to shine — and like the organizer Obama didn’t want to be — the time to fade away.
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