When U.S. President Barack Obama was elected in 2008, it marked the first time that a local "community organizer" had risen to the highest office on the planet. I wasn't entirely optimistic. Granted, the geopolitical competition (Russia) is also led by a community organizer of sorts, Vladimir Putin, except that the community he was organizing was the Russian domestic intelligence service.
At the time, it was hard to see how Obama's community-organizing background could bode well for America. Five years later, how has it all worked out? The results so far have been mixed.
Politics is a profession whereby the qualities necessary for victory are different from those that make a great leader. In political campaigns, reaching out to voters and making them feel like they're part of something important is often the key to success. But once elected, the same behavior can give the impression that the politician who was elected to lead needs to consult the masses because he doesn't really know what he's doing.
Not that there isn't value in community-organizing and alliance-building skills. Let's look at some of the major issues Obama has handled, and how those skills have served him.
-- Obamacare: Whereas President George W. Bush's biggest perceived quagmire involved a global chessboard, complex geopolitical strategy and troop logistics, Obama's Waterloo is a health-care comparison-shopping website that he probably could have had a Stanford computer-science student build for course credit.
Obama is now apparently using his community-organizing skills to get kids involved in cleaning up his mess. Speaking at a White House youth summit on December 4, Obama said to the kids in attendance: "So I'm going to need you all to spread the word about how the Affordable Care Act really works, what its benefits are, what its protections are and, most importantly, how people can sign up. ... But no matter how much I care, the truth is ... for your friends and your family, the most important source of information is not going to be me, it's going to be you. They are going to trust you."
Seriously? Why not get the kids to mow the White House lawn, too?
Selling policies is your job, Mr. President. Imagine if Bush had said, at the height of Iraq war criticism, "I'm calling on all y'all kids to explain to ma and pa why we went into Iraq and why we're fighting over there. I'm counting on you to provide daily intelligence briefings to those around you. And pull up your jeans from under your butt and brush the Dorito dust off your vintage band t-shirt first."
-- International Relations: This is the one field to which community-organizing skills should be transferable, since it ought to involve the construction of strategic alliances. There's no need for the U.S. to be everywhere when allies can do the job -- particularly in cases where new geopolitical realities have rendered America's interests much less direct, and where other nations have more pragmatic regional influence. Obama passed the ball to regional power Russia during the Syrian conflict, albeit only after taking America to the brink of war.
He has effectively offloaded management of Middle Eastern and African conflicts to European allies while focusing on more economically imperative interests. Despite America having claim to oil-rich Arctic territory, Obama seems content to let Canada lead North America in that turf war with Russia. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper ordered a remapping of Canadian Arctic claims, with Putin responding by ordering military reinforcement in the area. Although some might label all of this a lack of leadership on Obama's part, it could just as easily be labeled as a leveraging of strategic alliances. Time will tell. For now, the community-organizing background gets the benefit of the doubt.
Grade: B-minus (subject to periodic review).
-- Economy: Here's where a community organizer can behave like a kid sitting in the backseat with a toy steering wheel, thinking he controls the car. The U.S. economy is controlled by market forces on a global scale, beyond the reach of any president who might try to meddle and make people believe that he's doing so for the benefit of the masses. Even with taxpayer-funded government bailouts, the funding still ultimately comes from the consumer. It's nothing more than a shell game with the taxpayer's wallet. Calling on Congress to increase unemployment benefits, or crowing about General Motors being profitable post-bailout, or claiming on the White House website that you're "putting America back to work" is the equivalent of taking credit for the fact that everyone gets a day off work on December 25.
Grade: Not applicable.