Newt Gingrich is only the latest in a long line of conservatives who have accused President Obama of being a “Saul Alinsky radical.” And Alinsky, who died when the president was 11, would delight in all the free PR. But he also would be the first to say Obama does not
much resemble that remark.
In fact, if Alinsky were alive today, he’d surely be camped out in front of the White House, using every trick in his book, “Rules for Radicals,” to point out the many ways in which the president is not an infiltrator of the dreaded establishment, but the personification of it.
Oh, Alinsky and Obama do have a few things in common: Both lived in Chicago and were community organizers there, though that is a little like saying both Freud and my old roommate Lisa were psychotherapists.
Both Alinsky and Obama were highly pragmatic self-described change agents, too. And as I have pointed out before, if you think Obama was initially hailed as “The One,” check out the 1940 editorial in the New York Herald Tribune that said if Alinsky’s work bringing people together to improve their own neighborhood in Chicago’s notorious Back of the Yards meat-packing district could be replicated across the country, “it may well mean the salvation of our way of life.’’
But Obama is as cool as Alinsky was hot, as conservative in his tactics as Alinsky was outrageous.
And again in last night’s State of the Union, Obama followed none of Alinsky’s “ Rules for Radicals .”
That 1971 book, written shortly before Alinsky’s death, begins “What follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be. The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away.”
The president has indeed drawn attention to the Have-Nots. And Michelle Obama, in her remarks at the Democratic National Convention in 2008, did refer to Alinsky when she said her husband had won her heart by speaking of turning the world as it is into the world as it should be.
Yet Alinsky’s blueprint for revolution is the opposite of Obama’s ultra-traditional path to power — via Harvard and elected office.
Alinksy’s Rule #1: Power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have. Obama sometimes opens negotiations with such generous concessions that it’s hard to imagine what’s left in his pocket. After the debt-ceiling negotiations, there was a serious argument over whether he’d been outsmarted or had secretly wanted the Republicans to carry the deficit-cutting day. Either way, a cunning and committed Marxist poker player he’s not. And again in last night’s address, he made no attempt to intimidate and many to cajole.
2. Never go outside the expertise of your people. Given the problems facing the global economy on the day he was sworn in, that was never even an option.
3. Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy. Look for ways to increase insecurity, anxiety and uncertainty. If Obama thinks of his political adversaries as “the enemy,’’ he’s done a better job of masking it than they have where he’s
Republicans argue that stoking “class warfare” is exactly what Obama did in last night’s State of the Union, saying, “We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by. Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share and everyone plays by the same set of rules.” But he repeatedly spoke of the future as bright and getting brighter. And as an incumbent, it’s insecurity, anxiety and uncertainty that are his enemies.
It would be hard to see the Republican response to the speech, from Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, as anything but anxiety-producing, however: “On these evenings,” Daniel said, “Presidents naturally seek to find the sunny side of our national condition. But when President Obama claims that the state of our union is anything but grave, he must know in his heart that this is not true.’’ Daniels also suggested Democrats are “mortal enemies of Social Security and Medicare,’’ and posited that we “are only a short distance behind Greece, Spain and other European countries now facing economic catastrophe.”
4. Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules. You can kill them with this, for they can no more obey their own rules than the Christian church can live up to Christianity. Obama has never made an issue of the occasionally imperfect match between the “family values” rhetoric and record of some of his rivals. (Though if Newt Gingrich is the nominee, his super PAC will.) Last night, instead of calling out Republicans in Congress, Obama said we should all learn from the Navy SEAL team that took out Osama bin Laden, and not even think about who’s a Democrat and who’s a Republican.
5. Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon. Obama has shown unfortunate flashes of sarcasm, as when he said he told his 2008 primary opponent, “You’re likable enough, Hillary.’’ He’s come off as dismissive, referring to “bitter” Midwesterners clinging to “guns or religion.” And he’s been too glib, as he acknowledged after telling Rick Warren that knowing when life begins was “above my paygrade.” But ridicule? That’s more in line with Gingrich calling Obama “the most effective food-stamp president in history.” Or the president’s golfing buddy, Republican Speaker John Boehner, calling the State of the Union “pathetic” before even seeing it.
Worst of all, though, according to Alinsky’s blueprint, would be Obama’s failure to adhere to his final rule:
13. Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it and polarize it. One acts decisively only in the conviction that all the angels are on one side and all the devils on the other.
Obama not only doesn’t believe that, but ran against it. He said again last night that “this nation is great because we get each other’s backs.”
GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney recently spoke of how those (Gingrich and also Gingrich) who adopt the tools of the left — the rhetorical pitchforks of the Have-Nots — might live to see those tools turned against themselves. But so far, that’s not how it’s worked at all. So far, the Alinsky playbook has been used to excellent effect — against Barack Obama.
Melinda Henneberger is a Washington Post political writer and anchor of ‘She the People.’ Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.