A Lesson for Barack Obama From the Harold Washington Playbook

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

First, my disclaimer: I'm not one of those pundits who gets paid to analyze the election results, voter turnout, or the implications of exit polls. But, here I go anyway: Here's my Chicago-community-organizer's take on Tuesday night's election results.

This is what the election outcomes feel like to me: There was a big battle in a big war Tuesday night, and the President lost.

The President needed those two governors. He didn't get them. The result: We the people -- the people who want change that will yield a secure future for all -- are in trouble.

Mr. President: you need to win this war, the one that, if won, will really protect American families.

Here's how.

Heed this page from the Harold Washington playbook, the page listing Harold's two main rules for winning elections -- when elections are wars.

1) Never forget your base.

2) Be willing to cut the opposition off at the knees.

I can attest that these were two rules Harold Washington never let you forget, if you were going to work for him, and stay working.

Why? Because Harold Washington knew that once he'd won, he had to deliver for his base, so that they would deliver for him.

As best I can remember, Harold Washington never did move away from his people; he stuck with them; he delivered for them. The result: They stuck with him.

Some suggest that, in light of what happened Tuesday night, it makes sense for the president to move away from his base, to compromise and negotiate (some more), to meet his enemies on common (of necessity, lowest-common-denominator) ground.


Not, Mr. President, if you want to win this war, winning the battles that need winning for the people who elected you.

Mr. President: Please know this: know that your people, those voters, know that "change you can believe in" isn't modest financial regulation, or compromising women's most basic freedom (the right to control one's reproductive destiny), or bailing out aging industries, run by aging men who haven't, for decades, delivered the goods for the people who most need them, e.g., safe, comfortable, fuel efficient cars that the average American family can afford.

Another disclaimer: I admit I'm biased about the genius and commitment of Harold Washington. He was a friend and a mentor. But he was also a brilliant boss, a brilliant big-battle-time general, if you will.

In the earliest days of Mayor Washington's first mayoral campaign, he drew a chart on a drink-napkin for me. What was that chart, you ask?

Well, it was a list of the predominantly African-American wards in which, if Harold won more than 95% of the vote, it wouldn't matter what 96 of every 100 white persons did: he'd win the Democratic primary and the race for mayor. Guess what: That's exactly what happened.

Mr. President: Please, please take this Harold lesson to heart. Remember what you, too, learned on the streets of Harold's South Side. I'm paraphrasing Harold here: confront, co-opt, control. Do what Harold did. Win this war.

Mr. President, lead America to the future it needs: the future those New Jersey and Virginia stay-at-home-once-were-Obama-voters were crying out for Tuesday night: A future which we own, not one we borrow (from China); or we buy (from China); or we mortgage (to Wall Street); or we lose, because our leaders have forgotten what the Founders said: 'Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" is for all of us.

Mr. President: Please, please remember that your "base" is the women, minorities, and working families of America, who are hurting horribly. Compromise and accommodation won't help them. Winning their war will.

Mr. President: Please, please cut the opposition off at the knees, if you have to: Tell the opposition that it means nothing to be an American, (as the Founders characterized that status), if every American doesn't have a good job, affordable health care, a decent home, and a secure neighborhood.

If you do these things, Mr. President, you will win the one American war worth winning: the one to truly secure America's future. Why? Because you will have fought the American fight, brooking no opposition in pursuit of that holy cause.