Obama's Pivot

As President Obama returns to his roots in community organizing and leadership development, he is not alone.
01/11/2017 04:45 pm ET Updated Jan 16, 2017
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Tuesday night, President Obama said farewell, and thank you, to America, his family, and his time in office. It was a soaring speech. In its best moments, it took us back to the greatest moments of his campaigns and presidency, to the times when we knew that we were the change we had been waiting for. He reminded us that “we serve … not to score points … but to make people’s lives better.”

More importantly, he acknowledged that the fight is never over. We must work to continually push our nation forward because “the gains of our long journey to freedom are not assured.” Looking forward, there is much work to do. President Obama has begun to map out where he will focus his efforts. As has been widely reported, President Obama will now return to his roots in leadership development and community organizing. He has said, “What I’m interested in is just developing a whole new generation of talent … And making sure that whatever resources, credibility, spotlight that I can bring to help raise them up.”

We welcome him into this fight, and want him to know that he is not alone.

President Obama will be remembered a transformative policy president. He came into Washington on the strength of his unifying progressive vision, best laid out in his 2004 DNC keynote. This vision was to be met by Republican leader Mitch McConnell’s commitment to unrelenting obstructionism, designed to deny him a second term before the first even began. President Obama fought uphill on a scale unimaginable 30 years ago, and―incredibly― to a large extent, he won. Consider just a few notable successes: he saved the US economy from a Depression-level precipice; delivered comprehensive health care reform; saved the U.S. auto industry; killed Osama Bin Laden; protected more land and water for posterity than any president in history; helmed the longest unbroken string of job growth in history; and, for good measure, did it all without personal scandal. In large part, President Obama beat Mitch McConnell.

Yet, history’s eventual judgment of President Obama as a transformative figure aside, one could argue McConnell won a crushing political victory. While President Obama won policy victories, McConnell set out to destroy the bench of democratic support for President Obama’s vision. Here, President Obama lost ground. While President Obama’s inauguration capped an ever growing groundswell of electoral gains for the left, since he took office the left has been devastated electorally. It has lost over 900 legislative seats, ceded control of the federal government, and lost 33 governors mansions and 25 unified state governments to the right. Worse still, these losses came at the worst possible time. In the wake of the 2010 census, the right used its state level domination to draw favorable district lines, making the climb to retake those seats ever-steeper.

Given this neat timeline, with gains before President Obama’s presidency and losses thereafter, it is easy to conclude that responsibility falls at his feet. But easy answers are hardly ever right answers, and post hoc does not require propter hoc. While President Obama has acknowledge that he bears some blame for these losses, they reflect a much deeper trend.

The ultimate responsibility falls on the establishment left, and its decades of disinvestment and uninterest in community organizing and development. As is now being recognized, establishment liberalism has structured itself to focus solely on national solutions―and to win national races. We need to revamp our structure for success, focusing on local and state development. President Obama is, at heart, an organizer. We should celebrate his return to the fundamentals, and stand strong alongside him in commitment.

He understands the real, and ironic, need for a more organized left in the United States. There is a central irony at the heart of modern political dynamics, which President Obama understands. Despite all the stereotypes of socialism, the left is―as a political actor―remarkably individualistic; and, for all its rhetoric of bootstraps, the right develops political leaders in a community fashion.

To understand why, we need to go back over fifty years to a time when the right was shut out of power, when Lionel Trilling could quite comfortably declare that “nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation.” Being in exile, the right plotted its eventual overthrow of the liberal establishment. Like all coups, it required collective action and a new set of coordinating institutions. Starting from whole cloth, the right developed organizations to fund and legitimize their reactionary policy ideas―entities like the Scaife and Bradley foundations, the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage foundation, and myriad conservative ‘Institutes’ housed within academia like Stanford’s Hoover Institution. This is a well-understood story. They created an echo chamber to add credibility to their ideas.

But the key insight of the right was to invest significant, and ongoing, resources in leadership development and candidate recruitment. The right in exile needed messengers and policy champions. So they created organizations like the Leadership Institute and the American Campaign Academy.

These entities have trained identified and trained tens of thousands of conservative leaders―men (and they are mainly men) like Grover Norquist, Mitch McConnell, Ralph Reed, Paul Ryan, Tom Cotton, Marco Rubio, and Vice President-elect Mike Pence. These individuals, and thousands of state and local mini-McConnells, were identified by the Leadership Institute in the 1970’s and 1980’s. They received training in conservative thought and political tactics. They were then routed to organizations like the American Campaign Academy, which, before being shut down by the IRS, trained them further on how to run a congressional campaign and office. If campaigns were not the student’s strongest promise, they were placed into receptive―and well funded―think tanks and advocacy organizations. Having been centrally planned, the conservative leadership development pipeline had clearly defined stages of production, from campus activist, the Leadership Institute trainee, to campaign staffer, policy cheerleader, and, eventually, candidate for office.

This cycle, which has been running for nearly fifty years, is still churning along today. The Leadership Institute sits on annual assets of more than $30,000,000, with over 182,000 alumni. The Republican party has taken over the American Campaign Academy’s work, having spent over million dollars in the 2016 cycle training campaign staffers―not candidates, mind you, just staff. The Heritage Foundation churns out policy white papers and advocacy on a budget of hundreds of millions of dollars. These entities work in conjunction with a hundred other national support groups, not to mention the state level imitators of each phase of the process. The product of all of this is then fed into a conservative media network, which restarts the cycle by reaching a new generation to be fed into the system. Conservatives are not born, they are made.

In contrast, the Left seems to believe once born a liberal the rest―the infrastructure and support―will work itself out if that person is electric enough.

The left, of course, has wealthy donors―with over two billion spent in the last cycle. And the left has policy think tanks and advocacy groups, including central policy hubs like the Center for American Progress, and well funded interest groups for every issue area under the sun. The left as a whole does not want for resources.

But it thus far has not invested significantly in general recruitment and leadership development. Policy echo chambers, and high-level funders and their chosen superpacs spending on television ads are useful in any election cycle, so they remain prominent in the left’s vision of itself. Leadership development is a slower game, though, with late blooming returns on investment, and so often gets the lowest priority in financial triage. This leads to a cyclical problem. A lack of leadership investment leads to undertrained and under resourced candidates. These candidates get wiped out and leave a vacuum on the “bench.” Then that vacuum is taken to show that investment in leadership development is futile, and so should not be made.

Since the election, a number of pieces have taken this underinvestment to mean that there are, in fact, no leadership development organizations. This is not true. When he returns to the work, President Obama will find a committed, if less well funded, network of leadership development organizations who he can support and who in turn can stand in alliance with his vision.

Organizations like New Leaders Council (for which the authors work), and its training allies the Truman National Security Project and Emerge America have chapters in nearly every state in the country. They have been at this work, finding and training progressives in urban, suburban, and rural areas for over a decade. They form an emergent pipeline, with groups like the Roosevelt Institute serving as a campus footprint, feeding into sorting and training organizations like New Leaders Council, Truman, and Emerge, then placing those trained individuals into issue-specific advocacy groups or network coordinating groups like Organizing for Action, SiX, and the Center for American Progress. This pipeline, if supported, provides progressives a ready-made assembly line to revitalize state and national party infrastructure, and take back the government they lost.

Through them, the President will find a network of tens of thousands of capable, and ready, community organizers committed to both being better candidates and in providing the network and skills better candidates need to succeed in traditionally conservative areas. Most importantly, the model these organizations have built across the country works. Its trainees are winning tough races. They have run in and won hundreds of down ballot races, for school board, for county commission, for district attorney, for judgeships, and for state legislative seats. These are the kinds of positions that set the stage for long-run advantage. In a time electoral exile, this model is a singular ray of hope.

The President knows these individuals well―he brought them into politics in 2004 with his DNC Keynote, and brought them into campaigning in 2007 with his campaign, and gave them hope in 2009 with his inauguration. These people did not abandon the president, they have committed themselves to training others, and building a new generation of leadership from the ground up, from Iowa to Maine, and Miami to Missoula.

Instead of sitting by as eager activists attempt to cure this problem by founding 1,000 new, disconnected and therefore doomed training organizations, President Obama should take stock of the committed organizations already bringing his vision to life. He has said he is interested in bringing “a whole new generation of talent” to the forefront. President Obama has a unique opportunity to bring them “resources, credibility, [and] spotlight.” He should take it.

In his farewell address, the president challenged all of us to “Show up, Dive in, Stay at it.” The next generation is out there, already pulling itself up by its bootstraps.

We are ready, and we welcome President Obama to his next fight. Let’s all stand with him in commitment to building a strong progressive bench for generations to come.

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