I think blogger Daniel Greenfield is quite right about Obama’s intentions for after he leaves office in January.
Obama means to become America’s “organizer-in-chief,” in some emergent version of the Alinksyite mold of Obama’s younger years. In one sense, he wants to radicalize the Democratic Party as his new version of a nationwide ACORN.
Think of a “virtual” scenario in which Obama is, so to speak, camped outside Trump’s White House with a megaphone, trying to harass and annoy the Trump administration so that it can’t function and is drowning in bad press all the time.
Obama will do this through the mechanisms of his Organizing for America group, and the Democratic Party. Some of it will seem like normal party politics, even if Obama’s profile as a former president is unusually active.
As with all community organizing, of course, Obama-OFA will seek to function as a shakedown squad – as he did in his early organizing days, and as his Justice Department and EPA have done. The purpose will be equal parts disruption and extortion – and don’t take your eye off the extortion side.
Never forget that last point. The disruption is noisier and seems more newsworthy, but the whole enterprise can only keep going if there’s successful extortion happening out of the limelight. Community organizing is an extortion racket, full stop.
But the project will be more than that. Daniel’s admirable contribution is presenting these very insightful paragraphs:
Obama believes that he can rule America from outside the White House. And he might be right.
Political norms and old rules have been falling faster than leaves in an autumn wind. If Obama sets out to move the center of power outside the White House and into an organization that will control national politics through the left, it would be dangerous to assume that he can’t and won’t succeed.
The Democrats didn’t respond to their defeat, one of a sequence, by trying to move to the center. Instead there is every sign that they are moving further to the left. Keith Ellison, a radical leftist with an anti-Semitic past, is tipped to head the DNC. Schumer still has the Senate, but Elizabeth Warren may have it before too long. Combine that with Obama as the president-in-exile and the Dems will be more radical and extremist than they were even when Obama was sitting in the White House.
The Democrats are ceasing to be a national party. Instead they are becoming a nationalizing party. They are losing their presence in much of the country, from state legislature to state legislature, and becoming the party of major cities and the national government. Their agenda is to move power from local areas to central ones, from the villages and the suburbs to the cities, from states to D.C. and from locally elected legislators in D.C. to the satellite bureaucracies of the Federal government.
I agree that it would be dangerous to assume Obama can’t and won’t succeed. But I also suspect that the diabolical competence needed to make the strategy implied here work will be missing. It will, at least, be insufficient.
The reasons for this assessment unfold in three basic dimensions. One is the prospective drama of Obama and the Democratic Party. One is the unconventional nature of what we can expect from Donald Trump. And the third is the very point that the Democrats are a nationalizing party, with an agenda to centralize power and rule the hinterland from the major cities.
Obama and the Democrats
Regarding Obama and the Democratic Party, a few comments. One, Obama will get pushback against any attempt to organize the party for his (or George Soros’s) purposes, and set its agenda. I’m not saying the pushback will be successful, but I am saying it will be there, and produce friction. Obama simply taking over with OFA, and driving the party into a mold it still hasn’t fully embraced, isn’t a done deal.
The Democrats will have to have an internal struggle first. Obama’s deckplate-level experience as a Democrat has been with the ruthless Illinois party machine – but that’s not the experience or expectation of a whole lot of Democrats, whether from the South or the West, or even states like Maryland or Wisconsin. I’m not convinced there won’t be a fight, or that if Obama & Co. end up in charge, it will be of the “Democratic Party” as we know it.
Another point about Obama and agenda-driven progressive campaigns is that he himself really wasn’t that effective as a community organizer. His big victory in that role was the mortgage shakedown of Citigroup. But he would never have gotten that done if Bill Clinton hadn’t been in the White House. It was the Clinton administration’s own executive activism that made it possible.
Obama moved on to the Illinois statehouse in the 1996 election, and at that point left community activism behind to become a rising party star. In the years since, he has been an agitator and figurehead, but by no means a visionary, strategist, or string-puller.
That makes a difference. It’s one thing if a figure of his particular talents is being groomed and packaged for a predefined role, such as senator or president. But when the role itself isn’t defined – if people can’t really envision what Obama proposes to be, on the political landscape – I’m not so sure he will be all that successful. People who naturally gravitate to what I call “Bolshelinskyism” – a hybrid of Bolshevism and Alinskyite radicalism – may have solid ideas about Obama. But they are always in a small minority.
Obama will need crisis-generated opportunities, I think: moments to seize in which Democrats, and then Americans in general, think he represents a solution they need. There will be some major forces militating against that, starting with the fact that he’s just an ex-president himself, with no active role anyone expects him to fill.
For Obama to made headway with a plan to rule America from outside the White House, Trump would have to be caught flat-footed, and find himself unable to get ahead of the problem posed by Obama’s organizing campaign.
One need not romanticize Trump’s abilities, to recognize that this would be too complacent an assumption about him. To get ahead of Obama & Co. in organizing mode, conventional political instincts won’t actually be as useful as those of a pugnacious, bare-knuckle entrepreneur and negotiator – who isn’t afraid the fight won’t be pretty.
Obama-OFA probably won’t waste effort opposing Trump directly, where Trump holds the high cards. But there will be some policy realms in which OFA thinks it can oppose Trump directly, with noise and agitation.
At a more complex level, OFA will have to put a big chunk of its chips on shaping the future by burrowing ever more deeply into the “regionalization” and “party nationalizing” effort Daniel alludes to in his passage above. That will mean trying to make end-runs around Trump’s and national Republican policies, especially via the regional organizations – collectives of states, county and city “associations of governments” – into which progressive activists have put so much over the last 30 years.
In my view, Trump actually brings strengths that more conventional politicians wouldn’t, to a fight waged on these two fronts (direct policy opposition, and burrowing into state and regional governance mechanisms).
For one thing, Trump doesn’t fear speaking trenchantly and candidly. He’s memorable, and an oxygen hog. In a communications realm in which radical activists rely on being the most attention-grabbing voice – they won’t be.
They’re not used to that. But Trump is. I’m not sure observers really appreciate how he has avoided overbalancing himself in the last year or so: not getting carried away with his own eccentric rhetorical notoriety. He’s accustomed to it. When it comes to notoriety for saying startling things, he’s Vince Lombardi’s guy who acts like he’s been in the end zone before. Being able to take your own untoward effects on people in stride is a rare and useful gift.
Trump will also bring a businessman’s unique perspective on progressive activism in state government and regional government associations. Most average citizens barely have an idea that the regional associations even exist. But businessmen with far-flung interests not only know about them, they know chapter and verse about what progressive activists are trying to do through them. (The construction and property development industries, in fact, have reason to be some of the best-informed.)
Trump comes with a clear vision already of where OFA will be making many of its plays. He is also assembling a team of advisors – starting with Steve Bannon – that understands this progressive governance campaign, and takes it seriously without fear of being called “conspiracy theorists.” That puts them ahead of a good 80% of old-consensus Republicans.
Where the rubber will meet the road, in a collision of the OFA campaign with Trump’s efforts to govern, I wouldn’t underestimate Team Trump.
The “nationalizing” Democrats
Even without an unconventional Trump administration to deal with, the OFA cohort could be sowing the seeds of its own destruction by pursuing what Daniel quite correctly calls a nationalizing agenda.
The Trump administration may, fortuitously, be well constituted to interdict a good part of this effort, by rooting out (for example) the federal grant programs that have been used by the Democrats for years to fund it. “Regionalism” and regional government associations, which favor power for the mega-urban areas, would be nowhere today without the decades of funding support they have had from federal agencies.
Along with unpopular policies like EPA’s and Interior’s, federal support to “regionalist” organizations is the kind of thing a Trump administration will bring an unusual, outside-the-Beltway perspective to. Trump can win some big battles against the OFA campaign, if he does the right things.
But Trump himself is a function of dramatically increased sensitivity to progressive activism across the American population as a whole. And to do what Daniel foresees, OFA will have to engage in a whole lot more of the activism.
The Obama cohort is setting itself up for a major collision, not just with a federal Trump administration, but with a politically alerted American people in their statehouses and county and city governments.
To achieve what it wants, OFA will have to operate more overtly than regionalizers and nationalizers have up to now. They’ll be trying to organize a power base that emphasizes control over targeted regions. And, much on the model of ward-tending in a Boston or Chicago, the party apparatus will pursue ways to hold a hammer over things like water, energy, and development policies – things at a regional level for which the Democratic Party, as the controller of a consortium of regional governments, would be a power competitor to the elected state and local officials.
The party boss in the iconic Chicago-machine model is a power center in his own right, who dispenses favors to elected officials, and calls in favors from them. In a similar manner, the controller of regional levers – homely policy boards, back-pocket businessmen, regional agenda writers – would be a power center with strings to pull against elected representatives at the state and local levels.
An OFA-organized Democratic Party would essentially make a new, “regional” level of party power-brokering, one that hasn’t existed in that guise before.
This set of levers over the people is the bread and butter of progressive “regionalism.” But although it would be a key component of organizing to nationalize the basis of Democratic power, the Democratic Party hasn’t really focused to date on controlling it on the political-machine model, the way OFA is probably about to.
They didn’t need to do that, as long as they controlled the federal funding and policy-setting. But now, they have to look for ways to enter the power equation from a different vector: by fighting to make this regionalizing network more powerful in its own right – and therefore more visible and contentious.
In doing so, they run the risk of galvanizing both Republicans and Democrats against their campaign, at the state and local level.
That’s the political stratum where Republicans won overwhelmingly in 2016. It’s not a favorable venue in which to make progressivism a big, well-defined target. The people are already turning against activist government more than ever before. More and more people are taking a serious interest in things like constitutional amendments, a constitutional convention, a meaningful political reset at the federal level that would restore limits on government. If OFA forces “battles of regionalization” that have their impact at the state and local level, the people will turn to those battles with the same sentiments.
Obama’s attempt to rule America from outside the White House could be precisely what brings him down.
I would never say “Bring it!” to a challenge likely to generate crises and anxiety in our body politic. But if Obama does bring it, there are reasons to think it’s he, and not America, who will have bitten off too much. Very often, the most alarming prospect is the shortest path to decisive victory – if we will stand and fight the battle.