Obama In Moscow: We Are All Community Organizers

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President Barack Obama on Tuesday attended a meeting of civil society NGOs in Moscow at the Metropol Hotel. He continued his call for a thaw in US-Russian relations:

We not only need a “reset” button between the American and Russian government, but we need a fresh start between our societies — more dialogue, more listening, more cooperation in confronting common challenges.

He, of course, praised the work of the activists before him. But he did so in a unique fashion: 

Oftentimes politicians get the credit for changing laws, but in fact you’ve created the environment in which those new laws can occur. I learned this myself when I worked as a community organizer in Chicago….I was working in communities that were devastated by steel plant closings, and so I went door to door, I worked with churches, trying to learn what people needed.

And we had a lot of setbacks — in fact, we had more failures than successes. But we kept on listening to the people, we learned from them, we got them involved. And over time they chose projects to work on — whether it was building a new play lot or improving a neighborhood park or improving the local school or improving housing in the community — and slowly, block-by-block, neighborhood-by-neighborhood, you started to see change happen: more jobs, better housing, more opportunities for young people. And I learned a lesson — that if you want to bring change, it’s not enough just to be an advocate; it’s not enough to just wait for the government to act. You have to step up and deliver results, real impact on people’s lives.

That’s not something that any other modern American president could say–speaking from experience about community organizing. What would be the George W. Bush equivalent: “I know growing a small business is tough. When I was trying to do that, I had to go to one friend of Dad’s after another”?

Obama, yet again, was bringing personal credibility to a message he was selling overseas. He’s done this effectively in his high-profile speeches in Turkey and Cairo. 

In this address, he recognized that the task of advocacy and organizing is different from that of governing:

Make no mistake: Civil society — civil groups hold their governments to high standards. And I know — because this audience includes Americans who’ve been critical of me for not moving fast enough on issues that are of great importance. They’ve said it to my face. In the Oval Office. While I was President. (Laughter.) They told me I was wrong. And in some cases they changed my mind; in some cases they didn’t. And that’s okay, because we’re not going to agree on everything — but I know this: Their voices and their views and their criticism ultimately will make my decisions better, they will make me ask tougher questions and ask my staff tougher questions.

So when human rights advocates criticize the White House for not being more transparent about past abuses or when champions of single-payer health care push the administration to develop the best public option available, they can point to Obama’s speech and say, “We’re just trying to help you.” No doubt Rahm Emanuel will say thank you.

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