Opinion

A lesson from Wisconsin, Ohio: Take off the kid gloves, Obama

Wisconsin teachers and public workers in Ohio have shown a kind of tenacity and conviction that our Community-Organizer-in-chief President Obama seems to have forgotten. Rather than shying from controversy and compromising his principles, Obama needs to fight his opponents head on.

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Public school teachers in Wisconsin last month, and now firefighters and police in Ohio, have given America a lesson in community organizing. The politically naive might say the teachers were defeated, and perhaps in the short-term they were, but in the long run, their refusal to give in attracted immense public will and political capital to their side – which could change politics in Wisconsin significantly as chapter two of this story unfolds.

Who could learn the most from this lesson in courage and commitment? The Community-Organizer-in-chief, President Obama.

These public school teachers and their allies not only faced controversy head on but also fanned it, condemning their opponents, drawing a bright moral line in the sand, and firmly refusing to compromise. They exemplified some of the very core principles of community organizing that, as a young organizer, Mr. Obama taught others in the living rooms and church basements of Chicago.

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Yet somehow, the president appears to have lost sight of the principles of agitation and inspiration that shaped his conscience and paved his path to the White House. By recommitting to his organizing ethic, Obama can not only strengthen his policy victories but also his chance of reelection.

Organizers seek out, not avoid, controversy

In outlining the principles of community organizing in his book “Rules for Radicals,” Saul Alinsky wrote that an organizer “must search out controversy and issues, rather than avoid them, for unless there is controversy people are not concerned enough to act.”

In Wisconsin, public school teachers could have worked behind the scenes, through political decision makers and influential news media, to try to quietly address the situation. That would have been the controversy-adverse approach. Instead, the teachers understood the power of public, political friction to galvanize supporters and allies. Early on, they agreed to Republican Governor Scott Walker’s demands around salary and benefits cuts, making even clearer that the fight was over collective bargaining rights.

Obama's weakening, wavering stances

Compare this boldness, for instance, with Obama’s recent shift to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act. It’s hard to imagine a more controversial action taken in a more controversy-adverse way. The president made no statement on the matter, and while Attorney General Eric Holder declared the law “unconstitutional” in a letter to Congress, the administration has made no formal statement in support of marriage equality.

This is just one of the most recent of many apparent examples of the president trying to find a line between bold actions and bold proclamations that does not exist. Even more recently, we saw Obama’s initially wavering support for Middle East uprisings and a last-minute intervention in Libya to protect civilians from expected massacre. Many have asked, just what is the Obama Doctrine?

Economic stimulus, health care reform, and financial reform were all arguably weakened by the president’s desire to do something controversial without acknowledging – and, thus, proactively defending – its controversial nature. Since you cannot run from controversy (the Republicans will make sure of that), best to tackle it head on.

Don't be shy about shaming opponents

The protesters in Wisconsin were not shy about castigating Mr. Walker and the Republicans in the Wisconsin state assembly as “shameful.” And why should they be? Walker gutted public employee unions under the guise that it would help the state budget deficit, a deficit that was not caused by public employee benefits and would not be directly improved by eliminating collective bargaining.

That move reeks of a similarly reprehensible ploy by Republicans in Washington this fall who held unemployment benefits hostage by demanding excessive tax breaks for the rich. With enemies this blatantly immoral, who needs opposition research?

Considering that conservatives had no qualms comparing Obama to Hitler for his health insurance reform, it’s time for Obama to take off his gloves and remind America that he started his work on the mean streets of Chicago and plans to fight hard for the American people, to protect them from the oligarchic tendencies of the GOP. Given that so many of the Republican’s proposals are deplorable – from de-funding women’s health to privatizing Social Security – it would be easy to deplore their proponents.

Most important lesson: tenacity

Yet perhaps the most important lesson Obama can learn from Wisconsin is tenacity. Yes, the teachers compromised on the relatively small things – wage cuts and other concessions hard to argue against during tight fiscal times. But on the important issue of collective bargaining, the teachers did not give in.

What has Obama stood for, really? The public option in health care reform? Nope. Ending tax breaks for the super rich? No. Great leaders inspire us toward a great vision, one that is good and just and firm. These leaders don’t have a vision that changes with the political winds or, worse yet, a lack of vision altogether, but simply a commitment to compromise and whatever that gets us.

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Mr. Alinsky said an organizer acts with the “conviction that all the angels are on one side and all the devils on the other.” It’s not enough to demonize the opposition, the president must also convince us – and perhaps himself – that heaven is on his side.

The power of the people, vision

Of course, Obama has a well-oiled GOP machine and the weight of big business organized against him. Yet while public employee unions are being debased and devalued across the country, public school teachers in Wisconsin stood firmly together, ground the state to a standstill, captivated the nation, and threw their opponents into a tailspin. Through their organizing, Wisconsin teachers proactively defined the public debate in ways that the president has struggled to do. As an organizer might say, never underestimate the power of the people.

In a 1995 interview, Obama said, “What if a politician were to see his job as that of an organizer, as part teacher and part advocate...?” Yes, what if a politician were not to yield to the lowest common denominator in politics but, instead, organize the American people toward a bold and unyielding vision of a better future for everyone. Yes, Mr. President, what if?

Sally Kohn is a community organizer and political commentator. She is the Founder and Chief Education Officer of the Movement Vision Lab.

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