Obama’s Naivete

A month or so ago, my very smart and shrewd colleague at Maryland, Peter Levine and I, wrote the following op-ed, which we couldn’t find an appropriate outlet for. It doesn’t deal with exactly what’s on the front pages today, but I think it speaks to some of the continuing–and reasonable–concerns about Barack Obama. Presented for your approval…

Steven Teles and Peter Levine

“How Obama Can Beat the Naivete Rap”

From the moment that his campaign proved that it was a threat to Hillary Clinton’s presidential aspirations, Barack Obama has been attacked for being politically na├»ve. In the run-up to the March 4th primary, Clinton mocked Obama for believing that he could transcend the long conflict over covering the uninsured through sheer force of personality, famously stating that, “You are not going to wave a magic wand and have the special interests disappear.”

This is a powerful, and unfortunately still largely unanswered, charge. Clinton is clearly right that almost any serious health care reform will require imposing sweeping change on the health insurance industry and some employers, and they will fight to retain the status quo. They will not agree to go along because of a heretofore suppressed desire to serve the public interest. To the degree that Obama claims that he can transcend or avoid this inevitable conflict, he is clearly wrong.

But we strongly suspect that he does not believe this. And we know that simply “fighting” the special interests is vacuous without some notion of how to do so, beyond simple belligerence. The organization that Obama has built to wage his insurgent campaign is, we believe, the key to ensuring that, where health care is concerned, 2009 will not end up looking like 1993.

As Theda Skocpol made clear in her book Boomerang, one of the key reasons why the Clinton’s health care gambit failed a decade and a half ago was that opponents of reform had supporters scattered across the country, in every Congressional district. Organizations like the National Federation of Independent Business had the ability to communicate directly with their members, explaining why they had a stake in the Clintons’ plans, and why they should move heaven and earth to block them. The Democrats, on the other hand, tried to push their plans through sloganeering to the swing voter, without much of a machine to convey their message. And that message? Trust us with substantial amounts of your money because we are smart and on your side. They lost.

The clear message of 1993 is that passing health care requires that members of Congress believe that there is an active, mobilized constituency that demands universal access to health care. While Clinton has depended for support on large-dollar donors and existing Democratic Party organization, Obama has shown an ability to mobilize thousands of citizens for his campaign. He has raised money from over a million people, and his Facebook page has 800,000 supporters.

It is precisely this network, which connects the Internet to the grassroots, that will need to be activated to counter the furious opposition to health care reform by supporters of the status quo. Obama should say in no uncertain terms that as soon as he is elected in November, he will immediately make good on his promise that his campaign is about what “we” can do. He should commit to turning his remarkable electoral machine into the most powerful mass movement for policy change since the civil rights movement.

Obama has observed that, “When politics gets local, when the person talking is your neighbor standing on your front porch, things change.” The only way to counter the inevitable attacks by opponents of health care reform is to have thousands of Americans patiently walking door to door, explaining what President Obama proposes to do and why it will lead to lower health care costs, a secure promise of coverage to everyone, and why it will not cause the skies to fall or the American flag to be exchanged for a hammer and sickle.

Obama’s formative experience was as a community organizer. Modern community organizers understand that ordinary people, when bound together on the grassroots level, can make powerful interests afraid. It is the fear of an activated citizenry that allows reformers to negotiate solutions and build relationships with their former adversaries. As Obama has repeatedly said, he will give the health insurance industry a seat at the table, but not all the seats. This is not, as Clinton has claimed, naivete, but the confidence that comes from the power of an organized citizenry. It is the voice of a community organizer.

Obama combines community organizing with the power of the Internet and a profound appeal to young people. He has mobilized millions of people during the campaign, but he must explain to them, now, what will happen after the campaign ends. He must make crystal clear that he understands that the special interests will not be defeated with a “magic wand”-they will be defeated by being out-organized in what will likely be the ground war to end all political ground wars. And that is a war in which he has the troops, troops that he has already shown he can lead out of the trenches.

Author: Steven M. Teles

Steven Teles is a Visiting Fellow at the Yale Center for the Study of American Politics. He is the author of Whose Welfare? AFDC and Elite Politics (University Press of Kansas), and co-editor of Ethnicity, Social Mobility and Public Policy (Cambridge). He is currently completing a book on the evolution of the conservative legal movement, co-editing a book on conservatism and American Political Development, and beginning a project on integrating political analysis into policy analysis. He has also written journal articles and book chapters on international free market think tanks, normative issues in policy analysis, pensions and affirmative action policy in Britain, US-China policy and federalism. He has taught at Brandeis, Boston University, Holy Cross, and Hamilton colleges, and been a research fellow at Harvard, Princeton and the University of London.

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