Chicago Reader Interview Obama

This one from 1995 has been getting a lot of play recently. It’s a very interesting article. As to the charge that Obama is all hat no cattle, this article suggests dude has clearly had a vision (and still does) for at least a decade now and is going about trying to make it happen. Very consistent. And it’s very different in terms of method and approach than a generic Democrat or liberal. Right wing commentators have at least picked up on this now and are busy floating the he’s a collectivist meme.

The article focuses on Obama’s then upcoming State Senate Run and is geared to the south side Chicago African American constituency he represented. But some real gems in this piece whatever you think of his approach, it is clearly laid out.

On his sense of a calling and politics as a mission (similar to Audacity of Hope):

“Now all of this may be good political advice,” Obama said, “but it’s all so superficial. I am surprised at how many elected officials–even the good ones–spend so much time talking about the mechanics of politics and not matters of substance. They have this poker chip mentality, this overriding interest in retaining their seats or in moving their careers forward, and the business and game of politics, the political horse race, is all they talk about. Even those who are on the same page as me on the issues never seem to want to talk about them. Politics is regarded as little more than a career.”

Then this super relevant given the Rev. Wright flap:

Obama thinks elected officials could do much to overcome the political paralysis of the nation’s black communities. He thinks they could lead their communities out of twin culs-de-sac: the unrealistic politics of integrationist assimilation–which helps a few upwardly mobile blacks to “move up, get rich, and move out”–and the equally impractical politics of black rage and black nationalism–which exhorts but does not organize ordinary folks or create realistic agendas for change.

The integrationist assimilation meme is the one I believe Juan Williams reads into MLK here. The black rage and black nationalism more represented in (some) of Rev. Wright’s thought.

What Obama is really after is the idea of communities uplifting themselves where they are–i.e. development–but not gentrification or middle-classization. For those who have thought and acted long and hard on these issues this is I believe the deepest goal and by far the hardest. Gentrification is easy. Just push the poor people out. Neighborhoods can easily be revived. But who benefits from that revival? Inevitably it’s yuppies who’ll come from the outside and pluck the fruit that others labored for. Or the thinking for black Americans that the path is out of the ghettos as opposed to the transformation (from within) of the ghettos. Much harder. Much much harder.  Much more  after jump.

At the same time however Obama is not the traditional redistrubutionist Neo-New Deal policies of say an Edwards and now that he is out of a Clinton. However much some policies he favors seek some redistribution.

What makes Obama different from other progressive politicians is that he doesn’t just want to create and support progressive programs; he wants to mobilize the people to create their own. He wants to stand politics on its head, empowering citizens by bringing together the churches and businesses and banks, scornful grandmothers and angry young. Mostly he’s running to fill a political and moral vacuum. He says he’s tired of seeing the moral fervor of black folks whipped up–at the speaker’s rostrum and from the pulpit–and then allowed to dissipate because there’s no agenda, no concrete program for change (my italics).

His reference to former Chicago Mayor Harold Washington is totally fascinating in this regard:

Obama added that as important and inspiring as it was, the Washington administration also let an opportunity go by. “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.

In other words, absent the lack of cynicism, this description fits Clinton.  And why there is a huge difference between the two even if policy-wise they appear close.  He is not interested in leading as a loner, working the levers of power.  She is–why she looks to LBJ, the quintessential loner, master of process, and ultimate Hamlet-like figure, with all the collective (as Obama would say) force dissipating after leaving office.  Or it could even apply well to Bill Clinton who as Obama correctly pointed out was more like Nixon and less like Reagan in his inability to effect lasting change (change that lasted beyond George W. that is).

Obama elsewhere in the article refers to this difference as one between citizens as consumers (the Washington/Clinton/New Deal model) and producers (the Obama model).  That fits with a general move from modern (consumption) to postmodern (production).

You’ve heard this type of language from Obama on the trail:

“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.”

Again very interesting that he does has a degree of respect for what those groups are doing, particularly in terms of organization, as way back as 95.  And not some cynical post 2004 “how can we liberals get the evangelical vote” kinda thing.

I’m just pointing out how intriguing this vision really is and how really deeply unalike it is to any other politician I’ve ever encountered in my life.  There are some serious possible flaws in this outlook (not always the ones the right will freak about though seems to me), but it is different.  It is wildly different.  It is light years different from McCain or Clinton.

Obama himself raises the questions about his own vision in the article.  I’ll deal with those in the next post.

Published in: on April 5, 2008 at 2:39 pm  Leave a Comment  
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