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A Memo to the Community-Organizer-in-Chief

Thousands of ordinary Americans learned how to be community organizers by working on Obama's presidential campaign. Mr. President, set the Obamaniacs free.
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A young Barack Obama spent a few years as a community organizer. The community organizers I know and love have been at it for decades, and they don't have time to cook a meal, much less run a country. President Obama needs to delegate. Mr. President, set the Obamaniacs free.

Every significant "change" in American history has occurred through the felicitous convergence of a mass social movement and a receptive government. Obama the candidate knew this history well. His poetic rendition of our better history inspired Americans and persuaded us to rededicate ourselves to political engagement. Obama's campaign team knew how to harness and shape this mass energy into a practical and effective electoral force. But President Obama, in contrast to candidate Obama, seems as uncertain as a bailed-out banker about the net value of this once-prized asset.

On the one hand, Obama has smartly absorbed the lessons of the early Clinton administration about how--and how not--to govern. It took months for Clinton to get his cabinet selected and confirmed, and even longer for the deputies--the ones who do the real day-to-day work of the government--to be put in place. Many of them had never worked in the federal government. By the time they had it figured out, the GOP had won control of Congress. Obama had almost everyone ready to go on the day he took office. (What happened to a few of these is another subject.) Never before has a president appointed so many special advisors, created so many new posts, named so many special envoys and czars. Rarely has a president been so confident as to surround himself with so many brilliant, successful competitors. This man knows how to delegate.

Unfortunately, Obama the politician absorbed some Clinton-era lessons too well. As a result, he is fighting the last war. That last war is not the partisan one of official Washington's obsession, but rather the Democratic party's very own internal war. Democrats have a perplexing talent for eating their own. They defeated themselves in 1968 in the streets of Chicago. They defeated themselves in 1972 in the convention hall of Miami. Throughout Clinton's presidency, Democrats carried out their philosophical disputes in public while Republicans schemed in closed meetings. The summer of 2008 was consumed with rumors of a PUMA revolt, which thanks to Barack's savvy and Hillary's good sense, never materialized.

Given this history, it is perhaps understandable that Obama is holding his troops in reserve in anticipation of the inevitable internal struggles. The problem is that, while he waits, the next war has already erupted on the floor of Congress. In the context of a campaign, the inordinate degree of control the Obama campaign maintained over its message, its lists, its staff, and its volunteers made sense. But the times have changed, and micromanagement of the base will surely spell disaster. Organizing for America is an interesting experiment. It cannot be a substitute for a mass movement of citizens outside government pressuring it to do right.

Thousands of ordinary Americans learned how to be community organizers by working on Obama's presidential campaign. The success of Obama's presidency rests on giving them the permission and the tools to organize independently. To paraphrase the favorite aphorism of community organizers, give a man a link and he'll click for a day, give him the lists and the code to the site, and he'll have your back for a lifetime.

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