Sunday, November 7, 2010

Obama Betrayed Himself

And the rest of us, too!

Marshall Ganz helped devise the grass-roots organizing model for the Obama campaign. His most recent book is "Why David Sometimes Wins: Leadership, Organization, and Strategy in the California Farm Worker Movement." He is a lecturer in public policy at Harvard University.

Ganz Tells Us How Obama Lost His Voice, And How He Can Get It Back:
President Obama entered office wrapped in a mantle of moral leadership. His call for change was rooted in values that had long been eclipsed in our public life: a sense of mutual responsibility, commitment to equality and belief in inclusive diversity. Those values inspired a new generation of voters, restored faith to the cynical and created a national movement.

Now, 18 months and an "enthusiasm gap" later, the nation's major challenges remain largely unmet, and a discredited conservative movement has reinvented itself in a more virulent form.

This dramatic reversal is not the result of bad policy as such; the president made some real policy gains. It is not a consequence of a president who is too liberal, too conservative or too centrist. And it is not the doing of an administration ignorant of Washington's ways. Nor can we honestly blame the system, the media or the public — the ground on which presidential politics is always played.

It is the result, ironically, of poor leadership choices.

Abandoning the "transformational" model of his presidential campaign, Obama has tried to govern as a "transactional" leader. These terms were coined by political scientist James MacGregor Burns 30 years ago. "Transformational" leadership engages followers in the risky and often exhilarating work of changing the world, work that often changes the activists themselves. Its sources are shared values that become wellsprings of the courage, creativity and hope needed to open new pathways to success. "Transactional" leadership, on the other hand, is about horse-trading, operating within the routine, and it is practiced to maintain, rather than change, the status quo.

The nation was ready for transformation, but the president gave us transaction. And, as is the case with leadership failures, much of the public's anger, disappointment and frustration has been turned on a leader who failed to lead.

Obama and his team made three crucial choices that undermined the president's transformational mission.
  1. He abandoned the bully pulpit of moral argument and public education.
  2. He chose to lead with a politics of compromise rather than advocacy.
  3. He chose to demobilize the movement that elected him president.
By shifting focus from a public ready to drive change — as in "yes we can" — he shifted the focus to himself and attempted to negotiate change from the inside, as in "yes I can."

During the presidential campaign, Obama inspired the nation not by delivering a poll-driven message but by telling a story that revealed the person within — within him and within us .....

On assuming office, something seemed to go out of the president's speeches, out of the speaker and, as a result, out of us. Obama was suddenly strangely absent from the public discourse. We found ourselves in the grip of an economic crisis brought on by 40 years of anti-government rhetoric, policy and practices, but we listened in vain for an economic version of the race speech. What had gone wrong? Who was responsible? What could we do to help the president deal with it?

And even when he decided to pursue healthcare reform as his top priority, where were the moral arguments or an honest account of insurance and drug industry opposition?

In his transactional leadership mode, the president chose compromise rather than advocacy. Instead of speaking on behalf of a deeply distressed public, articulating clear positions to lead opinion and inspire public support, Obama seemed to think that by acting as a mediator, he could translate Washington dysfunction into legislative accomplishment. Confusing bipartisanship in the electorate with bipartisanship in Congress, he lost the former by his feckless pursuit of the latter, empowering the very people most committed to bringing down his presidency.
  • Seeking reform from inside a system structured to resist change, Obama turned aside some of the most well-organized reform coalitions ever assembled — on the environment, workers' rights, immigration and healthcare.
  • He ignored the leverage that a radical flank robustly pursuing its goals could give a reform president — as organized labor empowered FDR's New Deal or the civil rights movement empowered LBJ's Voting Rights Act. His base was told that aggressive action targeting, for example, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee — where healthcare reform languished for many months — would reflect poorly on the president and make his job harder. Threatened with losing access, and confusing access with power, the coalitions for the most part went along.
  • Finally, the president demobilized the widest, deepest and most effective grass-roots organization ever built to support a Democratic president. With the help of new media and a core of some 3,000 well-trained and highly motivated organizers, 13.5 million volunteers set the Obama campaign apart. They were not the "usual suspects" — party loyalists, union staff and paid canvassers — but a broad array of first-time citizen activists. Nor were they merely an e-mail list. At least 1.5 million people, according to the campaign's calculations, played active roles in local leadership teams across the nation.
But the Obama team put the whole thing to sleep, except for a late-breaking attempt to rally support for healthcare reform. Volunteers were exiled to the confines of the Democratic National Committee. "Fighting for the president's agenda" meant doing as you were told, sending redundant e-mails to legislators and responding to ubiquitous pleas for money....

During the 2008 campaign, transformational leadership defied conventional wisdom. Funds were raised in wholly new ways. Organizers set up shop in states that no Democratic president had won in recent times. Citizens were engaged on a scale never before imagined .....

Now Obama must take a deep breath, step back, reflect on the values that drew him into public life in the first place and acknowledge responsibility for his mistakes. He must reverse the leadership choices of the first half of his term. His No. 1 mission must be to speak for the anxious and the marginalized and to lead us in the task of putting Americans to work rebuilding our future. He must advocate, not merely try to mediate in a fractious, divided Washington. And he must again rely on ordinary citizens to help us move forward.

Although the stakes are greater than ever, only by rediscovering the courage for transformational leadership can he — with us — begin anew.

Let it be so.


  1. I don't know, Emily. I don't hold out much hope. Mr. Obama has sort of defined himself as an appeaser of the Republicans. Once an appeaser always an appeaser. It's hard to break his habit of mind. His business model - as they say - is well established. I don't think he can change. The question is, can we change?

  2. Nominate Feingold in 2012. Feingold concluded his concession speech with "On to 2012"! That's both an ambivalent and an ominous statement. I say the real Progressive should run to unseat the fake Progressive. If I think like a Democrat, I would say support the POTUS all the way against the Republicants. But if I think like a Progressive, I say unseat the imposter. Feingold is a good a place as any to fine gold in Progressive Authenticity.

  3. Vig,

    I don't know what you mean when you suggest that maybe WE need to change. We don't occupy the Bully Pulpit - Obama does. And, for unknown reasons, he has refused to use it these past twenty-one months that he has been our President.

    I do NOT want to believe that he is only an "empty shirt" that knows how to deliver an eloquent speech but who is completely and utterly lacking in courage and leadership skills, as all the television pundits are declaring.

    The joy, the hope, the enthusiasm and the passionate desire to help Obama repair the wounds so grievously inflicted by the Republican'ts upon all but the richest one percent of us and their corporate interests - the belief and the tangible conviction that together, "YES WE CAN!" and the eagerness to be involved in helping bring about "Change We Can Believe In" has been replaced by disbelief, sorrow, despair and rage that the man whose words spoke so powerfully to our hearts and minds has turned out to be a cymbal full of sound and fury but signifying nothing.

    Obama seems determined to NOT accept the learnings that are so evident: there is no Loyal Opposition party, No Senator nor Representative with whom he can negotiate in good faith, because there is only the power-hungry, hypocritical, master manipulators known as the party of NO - the Republican'ts, whose only goal is to regain the Presidency and the Congress so that they can continue their assault upon our Democracy.

    I have to conclude that Obama is just too enamored of his imagined powers of persuasion. Obama's hubris is bringing him down.

  4. Ugh, running a progressive AND Obama will guarantee ANY Republican gets in the WH. I'd rather have a hawkish moderate Dem, and Supreme Court, than any nutty, unambiguously greedy R.

  5. Emily, your points are well taken. I think what happened is that, after winning the election, the insiders went to him and told him that, if he didn't have inside access, he would end up like Jimmy Carter, the most moral President of my lifetime, but one who accomplished little. So Obama abandoned the progressive advisers that helped him win and built his staff from the Clinton teams and a couple Bush holdovers. This allowed him to accomplish more more, but damaged his image.

    Off topic, Vig, I have set up an online petition to replace Harry Reid with a Democrat with a spine as Majority Leader.

  6. President Obama is learning and he IS changing. I have a real sense of optimism.

    Rahm is gone (thank god). Pelosi is diminished but it would be much, much better if she were gone.

    Harry Reid wasn't really the problem, but he wasn't much help either. We really need him gone but, alas, it ain't gonna happen. I can't help but imagine how much better things would have been and might be with Chuch Schumer in the leadership role.

    Still, this is a process people. It's only the first quarter of a four quarter game (remember I've already gone on record predicting President Obama's re-election).

  7. Pinks, our once-good ol' USA can't afford anymore warrior presidents, whether Democratic or Republican, even if the former is marginally better than the latter. That's the Progressive message. Obama fooled me: I wanted an authentic game-changing leader in the white house. We got a counterfeit. Wizard was smarter than me: he got what he wanted.

    We need to change our game. The first step is to stop spending bucks we don't have on things that do us no good. Bush and Obama's wars amount to our Carnival Splendor, which urgently need towing back to our own shores. Before we are reduced to eating Spam.

  8. By shifting focus from a public ready to drive change — as in "yes we can" — he shifted the focus to himself and attempted to negotiate change from the inside, as in "yes I can." This summarizes it all for me. It took me until a week before the 08 election to decide to vote for The Big O as I was planning to vote Green Party here in Cali. My picks for Pres slowly got shoved aside and I was pissed about that, plus I have a hard time trusting people that talk so eloquently...makes me think they aren't what they seem and they cover it with nice comfy speeches and talking points.

    This was an excellent read, thank you for posting it Vig!

  9. I feel bad for Obama.

    The poor guy has to do everything. Reid and Pelosi are awful, uninspiring spokespeople for the Democrats. Obama has to campaign for all of them. Speak for all of them. Do their lobbying for them.

    Looking back, I wish Hillary would have agreed to be vice president. Or perhaps won with Obama as vice president. But this is our bed. Hold Obama's feet to the fire, as effectively as small time bloggers like us can, of course. Abandon Obama and allow Christ knows how much more republican mismanagement? Can't do that Brothers and Sisters.

  10. Wow great post and comments as well. Really thought out. I have to say I agree with Doc on who we have to go with for 2012. I was wrong to back Obama.
    He sees his place in history much different then he's leading. Some of you know that I dubbed him the great Appeaser. I'm holding with that. Hilary may have been the better choice. Truth, I feel somewhat bad for him to. I think he's over his head. Dusty, his inner politician did indeed come out. A duck is better than any Republican. The thing is we need a strong leader. Today they are talking of cutting social security from Obama's own commission. It's also been reported that he's backing off his promise to start withdrawal in Afghanistan. To sum it up for me, Obama is his own worst enemy.

  11. A. Truthmeni, I stand by my earlier statement. I don't think we owe Obama anything. He owes us. Or, we owe ourselves.

    I'll put it this way: I don't think we - the USA - can sustain four more years of BHO. If that means the next meaningful election is 2016, so be it. Now, you should know I am an old, old man who doesn't expect to live through 2016. I still believe in doing, or trying to do, the right/correct thing. And the time to begin doing the right thing is now. Find a Progressive candidate who has presidential gravitas, and work for his nomination.


  12. Ayatollah, Nan Pelosi might not be as charismatic as The Big O, but she did her job, sending over 240 bills to the Senate within the last two years...and how many of those bills have been voted on, much less passed by that same Senate?

    That the Rethugs spent over 65 million bucks to turn Pelosi into the devil incarnate says alot about her power. Hopefully you aren't buying into any of their fuckery being spread about her. I don't think for one minute you are kind sir, but I just want to make a point.

  13. I agree with Dusty twice here. Obama did make it about him, and Pelosi did the job on her side of the aisle. Far better her that the Bush Dog running against her.

  14. Yes... Pelosi did her job... that is the saving grace of this administration.
    Emily! A great post! Marshall Ganz explains a lot about what has went with the HBS (Harvard Bus. School)... but all of that aside. He makes a good cause / effort to try and find the ghost of our support for this President.
    Transactional?!! A miserable failure, I agree whole heartedly! I agree he is a leader who failed, keeps failing... to LEAD!
    Speaking as one of the 22% of Democrats that did vote this last election (and work it for the Dems) I was not supportive or anxious to vote in the Democratic pick for Senate in my state... I chose the guy is used Gov the state. The election is a mess... but this is what usually happens; or so they say.
    I do know that the finer my eye focuses onto the choices of this President, the more I see myself as punked'. Many will say, but see what HE DID DO and be satisfied with that, a conclusion prior to another large ??? what???? Pelosi made sure he had a job to do. She sent the good stuff to him right away in full knowledge of this road block. You don't get to be the kind of chess master politically that she is w/o the historical lessons of first term Democrat Presidents.

    What has saddened and deeply confused me and lead to my promise not to support Obama again is his lack of leadership on the environment, his willingness to allow the good work of effective Democrats in the House and Senate (sans Reid) to be left bloody on the deck and WTF about the GULF????~!~~~!!! I'm so upset, so mad and so utterly disappointed in Barack Obama that I am wordless now for any support in his direction.

    While he cruises through the middle and East building political bridges (not so much) he allows bad military strategies in Afghanistan and Pakistan to furter dissemble the freakin' war of no good or goal ... and back here his conference suggests that Veterans should be making co-pays? Suggesting that this country can't rise up fiscally with a GREEN economy???!!!

    Yeah, I'm pissed. Confused. Let down. Over it.
    So are many of my 'persuasion' are ... liberal doesn't mean 'bent over'.
    But Emily! This is a re-poster if ever I read one. Great job!

  15. Ms Berry,
    Thank you for your kind words on my post.
    I listened to Dennis Kucinich describing the palpable feeling of hope and joy that pervaded Washington DC on the day Obama was sworn in as our 44th President, and teared up at all that has been lost these 21 months since that historic day.
    Tonight's news: Spineless Democrats, following Obama's lead, prepare to cave in to the Republican'ts by "compromising" on Bush's tax cuts, and continuing the Republican'ts give-away to the millionaires and billionaires, which will increase our out-of-control debt and do nothing to create the jobs which our country so desperately needs.

  16. Yes, Emily... it's tough to swallow. I did repost this blog. It's an excellent piece. And yeah, the news is hard to keep going back to too.
    But hell,
    we can handle it. And perhaps, just maybe,
    Obama will find a rebound. Yeah... not holding my breath even a little bit. :-)