January 31, 2007
Portrait of the Phenom as a Young Man
This 1995 profile of Barack Obama the community organizer is about the most illuminating article I've read on the man. What's striking, as others have mentioned, is how much of Obama shines through: His words tumble forth in the same complex, inspirational, deeply intelligent paragraphs we know and love, his thoughts turn to unity and steadfastly avoid demonization. But what's important is the emphasis on his actual time as a community organizer.
This is the profession from which he comes, the experiences that vaulted him into elected office, the skills he used to get there. You can look at Hillary's decades in political life and understand instantly where her caution comes from. You can study John Edwards' trial lawyer days and get a handle on his fundamental populism. And you can read about Obama's organizing background and see how deep his desire for unity and talent for consensus-building go. His was a job of common ground, of bringing people together, of kneading and stretching and spreading a solution until all parties could agree on its desirability. This may make him very effective in getting things done. Or, conversely, it may make him very ineffective if folks simply refuse to agree and he can't jettison potential allies for stronger policies. Draw your own conclusions.
While on the subject of Obama, I've often assailed him for not using his prominence and political capital to lead in the Senate. Yesterday, that changed.
January 31, 2007 | Permalink
Yesterday, that changed.
I don't see this as expending political capital to lead in the Senate so much as gathering political capital to lead in the polls. What is he expending here? Where is the unpopular stretch he must make, the risk? What is the chance that this will become law?
That doesn't mean it's a bad thing, but in fact it may be a bad thing. It can't have any force unless it passes by a veto-proof margin, but it will very plainly announce to our troops and everyone else that they're in the wrong place doing the wrong thing. There's no upside to that.
Anyone else remember when liberals were arguing that establishing a real democracy in Iraq would be extremely difficult and require years instead of months, if it could be done at all by our impositions? Now that's reversed. Suddenly we're neoneocons, arguing that it's been more than long enough, that we can get from the current mess to stable democracy in a few months, just by the pressure of withdrawing, um, "redepolying" troops. Yippee! We've seen the light!
This plan for "responsible" "redeployment" isn't especially responsible, at least as presented. It places conditions on the Iraqis for keeping some US troops there, but it doesn't address at all, that I could find, what "responsible" thing will happen if Iraq collapses completely, or if things just clearly get far worse as we leave. How is that responsible?
I'm not picking on Obama in particular. None of the other Democrats have had any better ideas.
Posted by: Sanpete | Jan 31, 2007 4:39:39 PM
Ezra, did you even read the Ygelsias post to which you linked? Far from calling Obama's move an act of leadership, Yglesias damned it with faint praise "There's nothing wrong with it," he said, and went on to say: "The place where the rubber will actually hit the road here is when Bush comes to congress asking for a supplemental appropriation for Iraq."
Don't get me wrong: it's good that Obama has come forward with a plan; in so doing he's essentially gotten behind the position that Edwards has held for months. And Edwards, as opposed to Obama, supports cutting off funding for the escalation--a position that Obama carefully has not endorsed. I expect and hope that Edwards will endorse the Feingold amendment that seeks to block funding for not just escalation but the entire war.
To fund or not to fund: that's the important question. We'll see if Obama's really ready to lead.
Posted by: david mizner | Jan 31, 2007 5:10:40 PM
I'm willing to praise Obama on this. While this is a rather obvious and popular move for us common folk, to the elite opinion-makers in DC, this is a bold, gutsy and ultimately foolish move.
Ezra rightly recognizes that A)no other Democrat has been willing to take this step, and B)given the mayhem our press and pundits can create, this move could be rather damaging to him.
Sanpete, I'm not sure there's any Democrats who claim that removing our troops will create a stable, peaceful democracy in Iraq. It's a hard-nosed, wholly pragmatic stance that sees Iraq as a totally failed situation. Since we can't improve anything, we might as well get our troops out of the meatgrinder.
We can debate whether this is the right thing to do. But we can't claim that people think we're going to magically create democracy by doing this.
Posted by: Stephen | Jan 31, 2007 5:26:34 PM
But we can't claim that people think we're going to magically create democracy by doing this.
You may be right that no one actually believes it, in which case the Obama press release that implies it is all the less palatable. We complain bitterly when Bush gives arguments that seem in bad faith in some way to build public support for the war. We shouldn't do the same, or countenance it when our own do the same to build support to get out. I suspect Obama does believe that what the press release says might work, though, just as Bush believed his own baloney.
Posted by: Sanpete | Jan 31, 2007 8:16:57 PM
That was a fascinating profile of Obama, thanks Ezra. Another thing worth mentioning is how consistent the man is. Remember this is 1995, when he was running for his first elected office as a State Senator. But you could transplant everything he said then to the present day and it wouldn't be out of place at all. Whatever you can say about him, Obama is clearly not a flip-flopper or triangulator in any sense.
I wonder how that compares to the other presidential candidates, on either side--McCain, Guiliani, Romney, Edwards, or Clinton. I suspect it's a favorable comparison.
Sanpete: what is your position on Iraq, exactly? The Obama plan is pretty much the best and most realistic plan that's been put out there. It's not some unique thing either, there's a widespread consensus in both policy circles and among the general public. Phased withdrawal from Iraq; aggressive regional diplomacy; suppress catastrophic violence; consider a triparate division of the country; reconsider withdrawal if things get better and benchmarks are met. No, it's not a magical solution to the problems in Iraq. Unfortunately, that magical solution does not exist.
The key here, I think, is that the regional powers have a huge interest in not letting Iraq collapse into total chaos and massive civil war in the event of an American withdrawal. That would be a disaster for Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, et al. And so they simply won't let it happen--if the U.S. works with them and implements the withdrawal properly, that is. Even if you don't think so, the idea that Iraq will get massively worse after a U.S. withdrawal is at best a questionable one.
Posted by: Korha | Jan 31, 2007 9:23:10 PM
From the 1995 profile:
While no political opposition to Obama has arisen yet, many have expressed doubts about the practicality of his ambitions. Obama himself says he's not certain that his experimental plunge into electoral politics can produce the kind of community empowerment and economic change he's after.
So, how did it work out? I've read posts here about Obama being a good legislator at the state level, but how about this goal of community empowerment?
Here's a long excerpt where Obama explains his philosophy of government:
"[Chicago Mayor Harold] Washington was the best of the classic politicians," Obama said. "He knew his constituency; he truly enjoyed people. That can't be said for a lot of politicians. He was not cynical about democracy and the democratic process--as so many of them are. But he, like all politicians, was primarily interested in maintaining his power and working the levers of power.
"He was a classic charismatic leader," Obama said, "and when he died all of that dissipated. This potentially powerful collective spirit that went into supporting him was never translated into clear principles, or into an articulable agenda for community change.
"The only principle that came through was 'getting our fair share,' and this runs itself out rather quickly if you don't make it concrete. How do we rebuild our schools? How do we rebuild our communities? How do we create safer streets? What concretely can we do together to achieve these goals? When Harold died, everyone claimed the mantle of his vision and went off in different directions. All that power dissipated.
"Now an agenda for getting our fair share is vital. But to work, it can't see voters or communities as consumers, as mere recipients or beneficiaries of this change. It's time for politicians and other leaders to take the next step and to see voters, residents, or citizens as producers of this change. The thrust of our organizing must be on how to make them productive, how to make them employable, how to build our human capital, how to create businesses, institutions, banks, safe public spaces--the whole agenda of creating productive communities. That is where our future lies.
"The right wing talks about this but they keep appealing to that old individualistic bootstrap myth: get a job, get rich, and get out. Instead of investing in our neighborhoods, that's what has always happened. Our goal must be to help people get a sense of building something larger.
"The political debate is now so skewed, so limited, so distorted," said Obama. "People are hungry for community; they miss it. They are hungry for change.
"What if a politician were to see his job as that of an organizer," he wondered, "as part teacher and part advocate, one who does not sell voters short but who educates them about the real choices before them? As an elected public official, for instance, I could bring church and community leaders together easier than I could as a community organizer or lawyer. We would come together to form concrete economic development strategies, take advantage of existing laws and structures, and create bridges and bonds within all sectors of the community. We must form grass-root structures that would hold me and other elected officials more accountable for their actions.
"The right wing, the Christian right, has done a good job of building these organizations of accountability, much better than the left or progressive forces have. But it's always easier to organize around intolerance, narrow-mindedness, and false nostalgia. And they also have hijacked the higher moral ground with this language of family values and moral responsibility.
"Now we have to take this same language--these same values that are encouraged within our families--of looking out for one another, of sharing, of sacrificing for each other--and apply them to a larger society. Let's talk about creating a society, not just individual families, based on these values. Right now we have a society that talks about the irresponsibility of teens getting pregnant, not the irresponsibility of a society that fails to educate them to aspire for more."
Obama left for Harvard in 1988, vowing to return. He excelled at Harvard Law and gave up an almost certain Supreme Court clerkship to come back as promised.
From a fellow activist:
"A lot of organizers you meet these days are these self-anointed leaders with this strange, way-out approach and unrealistic, eccentric way of pursuing things from the very beginning. Not Barack. He's not about calling attention to himself. He's concerned with the work. It's as if it's his mission in life, his calling, to work for social justice.
"Anyone who knows me knows that I'm one of the most cynical people you want to see, always looking for somebody's angle or personal interest," Owens added. "I've lived in Chicago all my life. I've known some of the most ruthless and biggest bullshitters out there, but I see nothing but integrity in this guy."
That's promising, even if his Iraq proposal makes me wonder above. There are several comments like this in the profile, which is rather doting. One thing that comes through strongly is a maximum effort to combine high ideals and practical results.
A fair amount of attention in the profile deals with Obama's ideas about how blacks can move forward.
Interesting piece, Ezra.
Posted by: Sanpete | Jan 31, 2007 9:55:52 PM
Korha, my position is that our forces are providing much needed security in Iraq, and that as bad as things are, withdrawing forces is bound to make them worse. The counter to this view in Obama's plan is that leaving will put pressure on the Iraqis to go ahead and take the political steps needed to provide a stable Iraq. Well, it would put pressure on some politicians, namely those that stand to lose in a civil war, and it will relieve pressure on others, those who stand to gain. It will also relieve pressure on extra-political forces that are making progress in Iraq extremely difficult already. I don't think allowing them a freer hand is a very likely way to stabilize Iraq. And Obama's plan, as far as I can see, doesn't address this at all.
I think it's necessary to distinguish Obama's positions on Iraq from what his bill can deliver. His bill cannot get Bush to negotiate with the regional powers. It can't. Just cross that off your list of what the bill does. You mention on either side of that point "phased withdrawal from Iraq" and "suppress catastrophic violence." Don't you notice some conflict there?
The tying of our withdrawal to failures to meet benchmarks gives a powerful incentive to those seeking our exit to obstruct meeting the benchmarks. Is that the kind of incentive Obama intends?
The regional powers have very different interests in Iraq, and while they may each prefer a stable Iraq, with the possible exception of Iran, which I think may stand to benefit from chaos there, the neighbors really can't create stability in Iraq, or prevent collapse. They just can't, even if they may want to. They can be more helpful or less helpful, but they don't hold the keys.
What other reasons do you have to doubt that things will get worse in Iraq when by far the most effective security force there leaves, but all the people making trouble stay?
Posted by: Sanpete | Jan 31, 2007 10:30:48 PM
Obviously nobody can MAKE Bush negotiate with Iran. That's not a knock on a smart regional strategy; it's a knock on Bush and his stubborness. Similarly, nobody can MAKE the Iraqi insurgency not "obstruct meeting the benchmarks." That's not a knock on the inclusion of an objective standard of progress; it's a knock on the inability of the Iraqi government to control national security. These are silly lines of argument.
The point is that the situation in Iraq is already pretty damn bad. The U.S. is currently achieving one objective in Iraq, which is preventing a full-blown ethnic civil war. That's certainly a good thing, but it's not something that requires the current American force presence. So the U.S. should begin a phased withdrawal, while still doing several things:
1) Keep a lid on the civil war (by getting regional powers to help)
2) Kill the terrorists (by killing the terrorists)
3) Protect Kurdistan (by giving them a security guarentee)
I think these very limited aims are quite achievable. No democracy, no oil, no change in the Middle East. Just get out while maintaining the dismal status quo and preventing things from getting much worse. Even Bush can do this. Then the next President can start to fix the mess.
Posted by: Korha | Jan 31, 2007 11:21:01 PM
What you fundamentally failed to understand in regard to Obama using his so called prominence in the Senate before is that he was ranked in the 90s in terms of influence when he got there. His convention speech did not elevate his status as a very junior senator and low man on the pole.
You never seemed to understand that for rookies, you have dues to be paid and you have to prove yourself to move up.
In other words: He did not have status to show much of anything but, to be a good senator and rookie.
As time goes on and you prove yourself you move up. With the 06 elections new rookies come along and your ranking changes and you have the status in the club to be able to show your leadership and abilities.
But, first you must mark time and pay your dues.
This is something you never did understand.
Posted by: vwcat | Feb 1, 2007 12:31:53 AM
I think the first person has got it wrong it's not that obama thinks things will be peachy keen if we ut pressure on Iraq's leaders to clean their country up. That part of the law seems t be a political flourish against bush's counteragrument: things are sort of getting better give us a little time. Right now it seems unlikely that bush would want to withdraw and without that no withdrawl bill will pass so the best we could do(whcih this bill seems to fit) is gather strengh on withdrawl in congress putting some pressure on bush to withdraw but since he is unlickly to do that the best this bill will do s to make it more likly if unfortunatly the next prez is a non hagel republican or a dem with a dem with clinton like posture on iraq (in this case probably clinton herself) to support getting out pretty fast once they get into office.
Posted by: rtaycher1987 | Feb 1, 2007 12:40:38 AM
These are silly lines of argument.
As I said, it's necessary to distinguish Obama's plan, which is just ideas (good or bad), and Obama's bill, which would actually do something (good or bad). To be of any use, Obama's bill has to work within reality, not within Obama's plan. In reality, Bush isn't going to be moved by Obama's bill to negotiate with Iran. So there's no point to considering it in evaluating his bill. You seem to be focussed on the plan, which however good or bad it may be will remain harmless as long as it's just a plan, while I'm focussed on the bill which, if passed, will not be harmless.
You appear to have also overlooked the point about tying withdrawal to failure to meet benchmarks. The objection isn't that the bill doesn't compel insurgents not to obstruct the benchmarks. The objection is that the bill offers those who want US forces to leave, not only insurgents but more importantly politicians and their backers, a strong incentive to obstruct the benchmarks. On the other hand, some of the very power brokers most likely to obstruct if the reward is our leaving will be more motivated to cooperate if they can see that we're going to stay and continue to lean on them and their allies.
The U.S. is currently achieving one objective in Iraq, which is preventing a full-blown ethnic civil war. That's certainly a good thing, but it's not something that requires the current American force presence.
What do you base that on? I think the generals will feel lucky if they can continue to prevent full-blown war with current forces. It's still dicey in that regard. I haven't heard any of them say they have more than they need for that mission. In any case, in the process of keeping a lid on the kettle overall, the troops do a great deal of security work that saves lives every single day. That's also important, and reducing forces will necessarily cut back on that as well.
I think your points 1 and 2 require at least as many troops as we have. It wasn't long ago that most liberals were arguing that it would take far more.
RTaycher, no bill that doesn't force Bush to do something by a veto-proof margin is going to move him. It will, however, send a very unfortunate message to our troops and others watching, all for nothing but political points, at best.
Posted by: Sanpete | Feb 1, 2007 12:52:04 AM
The idea that Iraq is not in "full-blown" civil war is, I believe, based upon an idea that war involves big planes dropping thousands of bombs on Hamburg or Iwo Jima.
Iraq is in complete chaos. American forces aren't preventing a civil war, they are watching one happen while trying to protect themselves and the Green Zone in Baghdad. And that Green Zone is the only area of the country that will see an increase in violence when the American troops finally leave.
Obama's bill is about getting the troops home. The rest of it is blah blah blah - unfortunate blah blah, but still pretty useless. He wants something that Republicans can sign onto, and that language helps them do that.
The idea that removing US troops will destabilize Iraq or cause everything to go bad not only fails to understand the real situation there now, but is also based upon statements made by the Bush administration. They really don't have the greatest credibility when it comes to reporting what's going on over there. Nor should Gen. Petraus - Bush's employee - necessarily be believed. General or not, he's a soldier who takes and follows orders, and his orders are to make 21,500 more troops into a solution for George's Iraq problem.
Posted by: Stephen | Feb 1, 2007 2:35:34 AM
The idea that Iraq is not in "full-blown" civil war is, I believe, based upon an idea that war involves big planes dropping thousands of bombs on Hamburg or Iwo Jima.
Not at all. There are many armed people on both sides of their Islamic division who aren't trying to kill each other ... yet.
The idea that removing US troops will destabilize Iraq or cause everything to go bad not only fails to understand the real situation there now, but is also based upon statements made by the Bush administration.
No it isn't. And your assessment of the current situation in Iraq is very different from the reports I see. It could be far worse. I haven't seen a single report from someone familiar with the situation firsthand who has said otherwise.
Posted by: Sanpete | Feb 1, 2007 2:54:40 AM
Apparently "our troops" live in a total vacuum of bushesque wonderfulness...
It will, however, send a very unfortunate message to our troops and others watching, all for nothing but political points, at best.
Quit with the sending naughty messages to the troops. I have this sneaking suspicion that the troops are pretty well familiar with what's going on in Iraq and frankly, I doubt any pending legislation is going to impact them more than the increasingly bad situation their commandant in chief has placed, most intentionally, in.
Sorry, your posts on this smack of concern trolling at its lowest.
Posted by: ice weasel | Feb 1, 2007 9:03:30 AM
Weasel, you're right that the troops are well aware of conditions in Iraq. The problem with the pending nonbinding resolutions and with bills that won't ever become law isn't that the soldiers will be told something about Iraq they don't already know or haven't heard. The problem is that they will be told, in so many words, by an arm of the government that has sent them, that what they're doing, putting their lives on the line in very hard and dangerous conditions, on our behalf, is pointless. Morale is crucial for troops at war, and it's important to know that what you're doing is important and appreciated. If you can't see the harm in officially implying "your ongoing sacrifices and losses are for nothing and we no longer support this cause, we support you but we're not going to bring you home," I can't help you.
Nonbinding resolutions and bills that have no hope of becoming law will do nothing for the troops, so don't even think this is for them. They'll still be left out there.
Stick with the arguments and skip the name calling, weasel.
Posted by: Sanpete | Feb 1, 2007 12:23:31 PM
I just read Obama's press release about his plan, and it sounds an aweful lot like Bush's plan, save for decreasing troop levels instead of increasing them. My opinion about the war at this point in the game, is that troop levels play a pretty insignificant role. So then, how does the plan differ?
Posted by: Adrock | Feb 1, 2007 2:42:20 PM
My opinion about the war at this point in the game, is that troop levels play a pretty insignificant role.
Why do you think that? Obama is talking about reducing them by quite a bit, apparently, and more quickly than Bush would, if he would at all. Obama's "plan" also calls for negotiation with Iran, which Bush refuses to do. Of course Obama's bill won't affect that, but it's an additional difference in their thinking, at least.
Posted by: Sanpete | Feb 1, 2007 3:06:24 PM
I guess I'm thinking of the practical differences, as you yourself were higher up in the thread. Who, exactly, is going to be doing negotiated with Iran? I guess I don't see Bush or his cabinet going there.
But still, regarding the troop levels, as a means to reduce the insurgency and ultimately "win" (if you will,) I'm not sure how much troop levels themselves play into that. Yes, I think our presence could be causing some attacks, but remove us and what do you have? Insurgents from both sides waring with each other. A civil war, by my standards. I think my big problem with plans for "success" and "responsibility" for Iraq are that I think the opportunity for such possibilities was lost long ago.
Posted by: Adrock | Feb 1, 2007 5:06:22 PM
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