Ethics & Public Policy Center

What We Know About Obama

Published in National Review Online on November 3, 2008



Reflecting on all that I've written about Barack Obama over these past six months, four inter-related points stand out: Obama's radicalism, his stealthy incrementalism, his interest in funding and organization-building, and his willingness to use — or quietly support — Alinskyite intimidation tactics. Since we stand on the cusp of the election, I’ll lay out the bottom line. For those who want to know more, go back and read the detailed studies on which I base these conclusions.

Obama's troubling associations are more than isolated friendships or instances of bad judgment. His ties to Jeremiah Wright, Bill Ayers, Bernardine Dohrn, Rashid Khalidi, Michael Pfleger, James Meeks, ACORN, the New Party, and the Gamaliel Foundation all reflect Obama's sympathy with radical-left ideas and causes — wealth redistribution prominent among them. At both the Woods Fund and the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, for example, Obama and Ayers channeled money into ACORN's coffers. ACORN, a militant group pursuing economic redistribution, succeeded in undermining credit standards throughout the banking system, thereby modeling the New Party's plans to tame capitalism itself. So the association with Ayers is not an outlier issue, but part and parcel of a network of radical ties through which Obama's supported “major redistributive change.” Via ACORN, that project has already nearly wrecked our economy. What will happen when it's generalized?

Similarly, Obama's “association” with Wright was far more than a mere pastor-parishioner — or even mentor-protégé — relationship. Obama's work with the Gamaliel Foundation required him to “organize” left-leaning churches into a larger political force. His real interest in Wright, Pfleger, and Meeks was to turn them into the nucleus of a far broader politicized coalition of radical black churches — as shown, for example, by his work with them on the Illinois racial-profiling bill. Again, we are not dealing with mere “associations,” but with intentional political partnerships.

Although media malfeasance is at the heart of our ignorance about these broader patterns, Obama's absorption of Alinskyite strategies of stealthy incrementalism have helped to hide the truth. Following well-worn organizer strategies, Obama knows how to wrap ideological radicalism in the soothing rhetoric of “pragmatism” and classic American values. There is a kernel of truth to the pragmatism, however. Radical though his ultimate goals may be, Obama follows classic organizer strategy — pursuing his ends in tiny, incremental, and cumulative baby-steps. The municipal “living wage” campaigns supported by Obama, Wright, and groups like ACORN and the New Party were never designed, in themselves, to bring fundamental economic change. These ordinances actually applied to only a very small number of companies. The broader purpose of these battles was to build coalitions for deeper structural change on the national level, when the moment was right. Obama would likely hew to this incrementalism in power, with the same radical long-term goals in mind.

Obama was a master at channeling funding to his organizer allies. He was the key force turning the Woods Fund toward a major increase in support for community organizers, at a moment when other foundations shied away from funding the militant and confrontational tactics of groups like ACORN. In his now infamous 2001 radio remarks, Obama's preferred strategy for promoting “major redistributive change” was through society-wide organizing from below. As president, Obama would connect his massive youth-volunteer program to his favorite community-organizer groups, thereby creating a political force for long-term restructuring of the American economy. This was the program of the New Party, and I believe it is still Obama's long-term goal.

In pursuit of his goals, Obama has shown himself willing to quietly support, and sometimes to openly use, radical Alinskyite tactics. At the Woods Fund, Obama's allies bragged about the way their “post-ideological” cover had allowed them to fund ACORN's confrontational tactics, while escaping public criticism. Obama has shamelessly used Alinskyite “direct action” to silence and intimidate political foes during the current campaign (a matter well-known to conservatives, yet little noted by the mainstream press). Victory would only cement the conviction in Obama and his allies that these tactics had “won,” and therefore should be used again.

Has Obama changed? Was he merely using his radical Chicago allies to gain national renown, and thereby an opening for a more moderate political program? I find this view unconvincing. Obama has often claimed that his early community organizing, and his redistributive legislative work, were at the very core of his political identity. We've heard his radicalism on the radio in 2001. Does anyone really believe that he's changed in 2008? Obama's political radicalism consolidated his shaky personal identity. It formed him as an adult. He cannot abandon that inner stance without losing hold of an already precarious self. Obama chose to live in Hyde Park — chose that radical setting as the site of his adult self-creation. Hyde Park was never the place Obama needed to conquer in order to escape. On the contrary, it was the personally chosen home he now hopes to nationalize by spreading his organizing gospel to America's youth.

Obama is clever and pragmatic, it's true. But his pragmatism is deployed on behalf of radical goals. Obama's heart is, and will remain, with the Far Left. Yet he will surely be cautious about grasping for more, at any given moment, than the political traffic will bear. That should not be mistaken for genuine moderation. It will merely be the beginning stages of a habitually incremental radicalism. In his heart and soul, Barack Obama was and remains a radical-stealthy, organizationally sophisticated, and — when necessary — tactically ruthless. The real Obama — the man beyond the feel-good symbol — is no mystery. He's there for anyone willing to look. Sad to say, few are.

– Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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