Dispatch November 2008

The Hope for Audacity

Todd Gitlin assesses the difference between Obama's outlook and that of FDR and LBJ, and considers what it will take for him to succeed in office.

With the country thrashing around and an incoming president as yet largely untested, hopes hearken backwards, converging on memories—and fantasies—of a time in the previous century when, in the wake of a catastrophic and self-destroying presidency, history met legend under the sign of a vague but promising phrase (what exactly was a “New Deal” anyway?), and Franklin Delano Roosevelt rushed to pull rabbits out of a hat, and the spirit of confidence—the refusal of fear—was part of the rebuttal to fear.  No sooner was Obama elected than Time magazine’s cover offered a Photoshopped Barack Obama in fedora and rimless glasses, grinning big, cigarette holder in place, hand on convertible steering wheel, with the tag-line:  “The New New Deal.” No surprise, Obama’s run-up to “Change” sends many a political analyst to accounts of  FDR’S first Hundred Days in office, when Americans first clamped capital letters onto the phrase. Obama himself sounded more than a little like FDR when he told Steve Croft on “60 Minutes”:  “My interest is in finding something that works.”

On the surface, at least, the resemblance is plain in both temperament and style.  Heaps of histories and biographies make clear that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was an improvisation artist, and the conventionality of the observation does not erase its accuracy.  Roosevelt declared forthrightly that a practical tinkerer was exactly what he would be—a man of action, pursuing (as he put it in a 1932 campaign speech) “bold, persistent experimentation.”  There was nothing highfalutin about his method.  He thought it was “common sense to take a method and try it:  If it fails, admit it frankly and try another.  But above all, try something.”  In this, he offered himself as the direct opposite of Hoover’s Republicans, whom he might well have characterized as the Party of Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There. 

New York Times editorial board member Adam Cohen, who in a new book, Nothing to Fear, views the New Deal through the prism of five of its central advisers, emphasizes FDR’s can-do improvisational style, but also notes that FDR’s experimentation was not random.  He began with two laws favored by business:  the Banking Act and the budget-cutting Economy Act. Having consolidated political support from the more conservative elements in his coalition, he proceeded to damn their torpedoes.  Quickly he was persuaded that he needed to undo his commitment to balancing the budget and cutting government spending by 25 percent—commitments enshrined in the 1932 Democratic platform, which he had taken seriously. (“I regard reduction in federal spending as one of the most important issues of this campaign.”)  Cohen writes: “Perhaps the most important transformation of the Hundred Days was Roosevelt’s decision to engage in large-scale deficit spending to fund federal relief efforts.”

Roosevelt took his mandate from his overwhelming victory, but he also availed himself of a social movement:  labor unions and their supporters.  He proceeded to back legislation that encouraged unions to organize—and organize they did, nearly doubling their membership between 1933 and 1937, then redoubling it by 1943.  Mine worker chief John L. Lewis barnstormed through the coal fields wielding the slogan, “The president wants you to join a union.” 

Obama, by contrast, leads a movement that is strangely his own— organized around him, his mystique, his aura, his promise.  In a political landscape where passions outweigh ideological clarity, this is more a strength than a weakness.  It’s Obama the charismatic amalgam himself who stands for Change, or, if you like, Transformation.  This is no small thing—it is potentially the biggest difference between his own political outlook and both FDR’s and LBJ’s—even if  his cult of personality strikes some observers as, in the words of Newsweek editor Evan Thomas, “slightly creepy.” From the time when his people deployed around Iowa and readied themselves for the caucuses, the rapture of his huge crowds, their videos and songs, their Webbed-up engagement, their readiness to donate and volunteer, harmonized with the networked style of his campaign.  It all added up to an odd sort of movement, but a movement nevertheless.

A national campaign is very different from a neighborhood project but, partly because community organizing was for Obama an intensely absorbing activity, and because he is a close student, a sort of ambulatory ethnographer, of the worlds he has moved through, he seems to have learned lessons from the latter that he and his team applied to the former.  On November 5, the best post mortem line to appear on the Web was this, on a tennis blog:  “Do you think Sarah Palin understands what a community organizer does now?“ 

For Obama there seems never to have been anything wispy or romantic about community organizing.  “Issues, action, power, self-interest,” he wrote of his introduction to the endeavor.  “I liked these concepts.  They bespoke a certain hardheadedness, a worldly lack of sentiment; politics, not religion.”  Obama’s account of his organizing years, taking up fully one-third the pages of Dreams from My Father, is extraordinarily vivid and devoid of self-puffery.  He learns the limits of community organizing, but also learns that he’s got the knack.  He learns how to size up campaigners and opponents, figure out who they are and what they might become.  He dissects the rewards and travails.  He works out how to splice together coalitions; psyches out what constituents need and will tolerate; convinces them to leverage their strengths, to work in unison and not at cross purposes; and not least, learns from mistakes.  He knows that an organizer is not necessarily a barnburner—not necessarily eloquent or quotable, but first of all a listener.  He proves himself modest and trustworthy.  He educates.   He encourages frequently quarrelsome individuals to align their interests in a common direction.  He works with the people he has, not the people he wishes he had.  He makes deals.  He knows he must deliver results— job training, college prep tutoring, a tenants' rights group—to bind people for the next efforts.  If you don’t like his direction, you call him calculating and opportunistic.  If you approve, you call him strategic and sage.  Either way, Obama the organizer never sold out when he went into politics; he was into politics all along.

Having learned the legislative ropes and strutted his stuff, he adapted organizer’s skills to the grander scale and more tangled circumstances of a presidential ordeal.  The inspirational rhetorician met the brass-tacks organizer—a unique combination.  At the Democrats’ 2004 convention, his keynote fused the prophetic style with the organizers’ mantra:  E pluribus unum.  Despite accusations from the Clinton campaign, he was never simply a speechmaking mobilizer; he was still an organizer, building on Howard Dean’s networks and his precedent-making Web campaign. Obama’s campaign team  trained hundreds of paid organizers, relied on them in turn to recruit and train thousands of neighborhood people, equipped them all with state-of-the-art databases and gave them lots to do and plenty of room for initiative.

Now, thanks to his deft use of the social-network applications of the Web, Obama retains the means for netroots operations, high-octane fund-raising, smear-fighting and get-out-the-vote operations.  His more than 3 million names—disproportionately young and energetic—remain a political force as long as he satisfies them that, once in office, he can deliver.   Roosevelt had radio; Obama has, in addition, both the Web and the stadium.  He can deploy his supporters to muscle reforms through.  He can fill arenas, get supporters to bombard Congress with phone calls to break filibusters, and otherwise stir them to action—to overcome Big Pharma’s obstruction of a new health insurance system, say, or the fossil fuel industry’s objections to cap-and-trade emissions-cutting policies.  He can pit them against the right-wing media who will surely pounce on his every mistake.  He needs to keep them pumped up to resist the default privatism of American life, the cynical inertia, passivity, even paralysis, of the public will. He must “fire up” his big battalions and regularly keep them “fired up” if he is to deliver results. Several times since his moment of triumph, he has said in just about so many words that he intends to keep doing just that.  According to E.J. Dionne, his campaign is now debating whether to keep his network autonomous or to fold them into the Democratic Party.

The question is, what results does he aim for?  Does he see bipartisanship as a means (toward significant transformation) or an end (for amity’s sake)? He could go either way, but in most respects, more evidence points to his desire to bring Republicans into a liberal consensus rather than split the difference with them. He has already embraced a progressive economic program that wears a commonsensical face, including rescue-minded deficit spending, hundreds of billons of dollars of it, to dig out of the present emergency.

A president, of course, can do many things that a young state senator from Illinois cannot.  He not only promotes a moral and intellectual style, but is also the master molder of the political agenda.  To realize his transformative potential and consolidate a base for more, Obama must focus, bear down, deal hard, and  deliver four crucial results:  1) an economic rescue that not only delivers an exit from the credit disaster but generates a more productive, more egalitarian, less predatory economy; 2) a green regearing of energy, environment, and job-producing investment; 3) affordable, comprehensive health care; and 4) a decent exit from Iraq.  Toward this end, he may well have to decide that other commitments conflict, and are expendable.  To hundred-percenters, such decisions will look like trimming, but like FDR before him, Obama may judge that the risk of inciting the left from time to time is worth taking if he can actually deliver on his big bets.  Still, if all he does is split differences and distance himself from the left, he jeopardizes his maximum promise.

Even to carry a relatively modest agenda, Obama must expand his base by winning results not only for his true believers but also for (largely white, largely downscale) doubters.  The magnitude of his challenge is suggested by a few numbers:  According to exit polls, about 45 percent of his vote came from the holders of college degrees, and about 42 percent from racial minorities. There are overlaps, but his vote in the middle of the class-race distribution sags.  Still, his two-thirds of the 18-29 vote offers reason to believe that Obama stands on solid political ground to go visionary. More than any other incoming president since Ronald Reagan in 1980, Obama can claim the proverbial mandate.1

Obama affirms what the late Michael Harrington liked to call “the left wing of the possible.” Now comes the hard part.

FOOTNOTE: Obama actually won five fewer electoral votes than Clinton, but Clinton’s popular vote was only 43 percent (against G. H. W. Bush’s 37.7 and Ross Perot’s 18.9) as opposed to Obama’s 52.7 (against McCain’s 45.9).

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and the author of Letters to a Young Activist and The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage.
Presented by

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology, and the chair of the Ph.D. program in communications, at Columbia University. He is the author of 15 books, including Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street.

The Man Who Owns 40,000 Video Games

A short documentary about an Austrian gamer with an uncommon obsession

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The 86-Year-Old Farmer Who Won't Quit

A filmmaker returns to his hometown to profile the patriarch of a family farm

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

Video

An Ingenious 360-Degree Time-Lapse

Watch the world become a cartoonishly small playground

Video

The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In