12/11/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Community Organizers, What Do They Do?

The high point of the Republican Convention for Rudy Giuliani came when he delivered the keynote address. He negatively compared Barack Obama's work history with the long and distinguished career of his opponent. He summarized Barack Obama's resume as that of "a gifted man with an Ivy League education. He worked as a community organizer." With that the noisy crowd erupted into laughter. The punch line was "community organizer." The crowd loved the joke and Rudy shared their amusement with his trademark smirk.

That same attack line was picked up later by Sarah Palin in her acceptance speech. Her derision, like Giuliani's, was cheered on by the convention crowd. Karl Rove taught them well. Take your opponent's strengths and attack them as weaknesses.

Obviously Democrats are the ones laughing now. Clearly the president-elect's early work in Chicago trained him in consensus building and that led to his mobilization of a successful, broad-based coalition that changed the electoral map.

Another Republican attack line accused Barack Obama of being an elitist. That was the other part ("an Ivy League eduction") of his resume referred to by Rudy Giuliani. And again, they got it wrong. He had the benefit of a Harvard education, but his politics were learned in the bottom-up environment of community organizing. In fundraising, voter registration, and getting out the vote, Obama's experience in grass roots organizing gave him the populist strength that allowed him to win the presidency and destroy the hegemony of the Republican Party in Congress.

Looking to the future, President Obama will need all those strengths and lessons he learned as a community organizer. He will need to come up with enlightened solutions to our difficult problems and he will need to communicate with the electorate and Congress so they will support him and his policies. Abraham Lincoln and FDR understood that transformative ideas only succeed when there is public support. Without the one, the other will fail.