Pundits first linked street organizer Saul Alinsky and his Rules for Radicals to Hillary Clinton, and then years later to Barack Obama. But does Alinsky and his influence have to do with radicalism, or raw power? Jim Geraghty takes an in-depth look at the links between Barack Obama and Saul Alinsky and concludes that Obama’s interest in Alinsky uses Alinksy’s means, but only to Obama’s ends:
After Obama took office, the pundit class found itself debating the ideology and sensibility of the new president — an indication of how scarcely the media had bothered to examine him beforehand. But after 100 days, few observers can say that Obama hasn’t surprised them with at least one call. Gays wonder why Obama won’t take a stand on gay marriage when state legislatures will. Union bosses wonder what happened to the man who sounded more protectionist than Hillary Clinton in the primary. Some liberals have been stunned by the serial about-faces on extraordinary rendition, indefinite detention without trial, military-tribunal trials, the state-secrets doctrine, and other policies they associate with the Bush administration. Former supporters of Obama, including David Brooks, Christopher Buckley, Jim Cramer, and Warren Buffett, have expressed varying degrees of criticism of his early moves, surprised that he is more hostile to the free market than they had thought.
Obama’s defenders would no doubt insist this is a reflection of his pragmatism, his willingness to eschew ideology to focus on what solutions work best. This view assumes that nominating Bill Richardson as commerce secretary, running up a $1.8 trillion deficit, approving the AIG bonuses, signing 9,000 earmarks into law, adopting Senator McCain’s idea of taxing health benefits, and giving U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown 25 DVDs that don’t work in Britain constitute “what works best.” Obama is a pragmatist, but a pragmatist as understood by Alinsky: One who applies pragmatism to achieving and keeping power.
One of Alinsky’s first lessons is: “Radicals must have a degree of control over the flow of events.” Setting aside the Right’s habitual complaint about the pliant liberal media, Obama has dominated the news by unveiling a new initiative or giving a major speech on almost every weekday of his presidency. There has been a steady stream of lighter stories as well — the puppy, Michelle Obama’s fashion sense, the White House swing set, the president and vice president’s burger lunch.
Alinksy’s methods can be used to any number of ends, of course. His organizing methods may have had radical leftist activism in mind, but they’re not necessarily restricted to that — or to even a particular cause. Jim does a good job in detailing Obama’s adherence to Alinksy’s methods, but postulates that power is the end in itself, and that societal and economic changes are secondary and not immutable goals for Obama:
Moderates thought they were electing a moderate; liberals thought they were electing a liberal. Both camps were wrong. Ideology does not have the final say in Obama’s decision-making; an Alinskyite’s core principle is to take any action that expands his power and to avoid any action that risks his power.
As conservatives size up their new foe, they ought to remember: It’s not about liberalism. It’s about power. Obama will jettison anything that costs him power, and do anything that enhances it — including invite Rick Warren to give the benediction at his inauguration, dine with conservative columnists, and dismiss an appointee at the White House Military Office to ensure the perception of accountability.
Of course, that could be good news. If Obama remains primarily concerned with maintaining his position, he may be more mutable than a true ideologue. If his economic plan fails to work, and especially if he loses a big chunk of Congress at the midterms, he may well pull a Clinton ’95-6 to salvage his presidency. That would certainly be an improvement over what we have now.
Be sure to read all of Jim’s excellent column.