Obama gets organized

Last night Paul Mirengoff wrote here about Barack Obama’s work as a “community organizer.” As Paul notes, David Fredosso explores Obama’s three years working for the Developing Communities Project in The Case Against Barack Obama. National Review has also now made Byron York’s article “What did Obama do as a community organizer?” accessible online. Also of interest are Steven Malanga’s “Organizer in chief” and Richard Fernandez’s “And the word was made flesh.”

One of Obama’s two accomplishments in this line of work was agitating for the removal of asbestos from the Altgeld Gardens public housing project on the (far) South Side of Chicago. York refers to it as Obama’s “greatest hit.” In the US News article “On the streets of Chicago, a candidae comes of age,” reporter Kenneth Walsh attirbutes only “partial success” to Obama’s asbestos removal agitation.

When the on-site manager of the apartments didn’t take action to remove asbestos from the residents’ apartments, Obama nudged the residents into confronting city housing officials in two angry public meetings downtown. These generated “a victory of sorts,” Obama said later, as workers soon began sealing the asbestos in the buildings. However, according to Walsh, the project gradually ran out of steam and money. Walsh reports that some tenants still have asbestos in their homes. On this point Walsh cites current Altgeld resident Linda Randle, who worked with Obama on the ’86 anti-asbestos campaign. See also Michael Kranish’s “A defining time of advocacy.”

What about the jobless steel workers Obama went to help on the South Side? They figure prominently in every telling offered by Senator and Mrs. Obama of Obama’s work as a community organizer. Founding a business that might actually furnish gainful employment to the workers laid off at the shuttered Wisconsin Steel plant may not have been above Obama’s pay grade, but it’s not what “community organizing” is all about. Malanga quotes Obama deriding “the old individualistic bootstrap myth” of American achievement touted by conservatives.

Malanga finds Obama explaining that self-help strategies “have become thinly veiled excuses for cutting back on social programs, which are anathema to a conservative agenda,” in his chapter of the 1990 book After Alinsky: Community Organizing in Illinois. Malanga notes that Obama also depicted leftist community organizing as a harder task than similar efforts by the Christian Right, telling a reporter in 1995 that “it’s always easier to organize around intolerance, narrow-mindedness and false nostalgia.”

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