Obama's Politics and the Nuclear Deal With Iran

In his presidential announcement speech on February 10, 2007, Barack Obama said that as a young community organizer in Chicago, "I received the best education I ever had." Later that year, at Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, Iowa, he expanded. As a community organizer, he said, "I found a community that embraced me; a church to belong to; citizenship that was meaningful; the direction I'd been seeking."

The lesson he took for the general citizenry was service. "Every American can give back to their communities and help their fellow citizens through service," said Obama on September 12, 2008, during the campaign. "Many Americans serve their nation through military service. Others serve by volunteering in schools, shelters, churches, hospitals, and disaster relief efforts. Still more are firefighters, teachers, or police officers. As a young man, I served as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago, where I learned ways to create opportunities for other people to achieve their dreams. Our nation faces serious challenges in its neighborhoods and schools, and we must empower Americans with the resources they need to give back and improve their communities."

In fact a different kind of politics that engages people across their differences is the genius of the kind of broad-based community organizing he experienced in Chicago. Such organizing revived the older non-ideological, productive meaning of the term.

Long-time community organizer and philosopher of organizing Gerald Taylor describes such politics as a shift "from protest to governance, moving into power." For Taylor "moving into power means learning how to be accountable, being able to negotiate and compromise. It means understanding that people are not necessarily evil because they have different interests or ways of looking at the world."

Obama clearly took these ideas about a different kind of politics with him after community organizing into his political career. They formed the centerpiece of his second book, The Audacity of Hope. He brought them to the campaign and his early years as president, when he sought to bring them to Washington.

"What's stopped us from meeting [our] challenges is not the absence of sound policies and sensible plans," he continued in his announcement in 2007. "What's stopped us is...the smallness of our politics -- the ease with which we're distracted by the petty and trivial, our chronic avoidance of tough decisions, our preference for scoring cheap political points instead of rolling up our sleeves and building a working consensus to tackle big problems."

One unmistakable lesson of Obama's presidency is that "a different kind of politics" is not going to trickle down from Washington. His efforts to work across the aisle brought scant success and a great deal of derision from pundits and Washington insiders.

Obama has long championed active citizenship. "The role of citizen in our democracy does not end with your vote," he declared in his victory speech after the 2012 election. "America's never been about what can be done for us. It's about what can be done by us together through the hard and frustrating but necessary work of self-government." But through his presidency, as during the 2008 campaign, he has consistently equated citizenship with service, not politics. Service can be important, but it doesn't teach the lessons of democratic politics.

In fact, acquiescing to the ways of Washington, the president has often taken a top-down approach, the opposite of engaging people in ways that respect their interests and their agency.

In foreign affairs, however, Obama's willingness to try a different kind of politics, seeking to understand and engage others of diverse interests and backgrounds, has been an outstanding feature of his administration. Such politics may well have prevented foreign policy disasters like the Iraq invasion. And it has paid off in the new nuclear agreement with Iran. As Peter Baker put it in a New York Times analysis of the difference between Obama and critics of the accord, "What distinguishes Mr. Obama is his willingness to see the situation from the other side's position, a trait that tends to outrage domestic critics because the other side is generally viewed as loathsome."

In an interview with Thomas Friedman, Obama argued that engaging others offers hope for change that demonization and polarization cannot generate. "When we are able to see their country and their culture in specific terms, historical terms, as opposed to just applying a broad brush, that's when you have the possibility of at least some movement."

Beyond the posturing and ad hominem attacks we can expect in the forthcoming national argument about the nuclear deal, it is good to keep in mind the elemental point of politics. Politics in the older sense of the word, descending from the Greeks, conveys the practice humans have developed to negotiate the irreducible plurality of the human condition. It is the method to negotiate different, often conflicting interests and views in order to get things done.

At times diverse interests can be integrated through politics, but the aim is not to do away with conflict--politics is a never-ending "rough and tumble" activity. Sometimes it surfaces previously submerged clashes of interest. Rarely does it achieve consensus. Politics aims rather to avoid violence, contain conflicts, generate common work on common challenges, and achieve beneficial public outcomes.

Making the connection between politics and citizenship is up to all of us. At home as well as abroad - and in every environment, not simply government -- we need productive politics if we are to navigate the dramatic challenges of our time.

The Iran nuclear agreement offers an example of politics' possibilities.

Harry Boyte edits Democracy's Education: Public Work, Citizenship, and the Future of Colleges and Universities (Vanderbilt, 2015), with many contributors describing a different kind of politics.