Jay Carney: Obama's Community Organizer Experience Contributed to Who He Is Today

On Monday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was asked by a reporter to elaborate on GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich's accusation that Barack Obama shares the same vision as Saul Alinsky, the Chicago native community organizer.

Jan. 24, 2012

On Monday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was asked by a reporter to elaborate on GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich’s accusation that Barack Obama shares the same vision as Saul Alinsky, the Chicago native community organizer.

As you may know, Alinsky authored the book Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals. In that book, Alinsky outlines his vision for ending capitalism, opining, “A Marxist begins with his prime truth that all evils are caused by the exploitation of the proletariat by the capitalists. From this he logically proceeds to the revolution to end capitalism, then into the third stage of reorganization into a new social order of the dictatorship of the proletariat, and finally the last stage – the political paradise of communism.”

He further argues, “Lest we forget at least an over-the-shoulder acknowledgment to the very first radical: from all our legends, mythology, and history … the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom – Lucifer.”

After graduating from Columbia and living in New York City for a year, Barack Obama moved to Chicago to work as a community organizer with the Developing Communities Project (DCP) of the Calumet Community Religious Conference (CCRC). Both DCP and CCRC are built on Saul Alinsky’s model of agitation – which, according to Alinsky, means to “rub raw the sores of discontent.” Mike Kruglik was a mentor and fellow community organizer in Chicago who took Obama in as a pupil. Kruglik considered Obama his best student. In an interview with The New Republic’s Ryan Lizza, Kruglik discusses why he thought so highly of Obama. Summing up Kruglik’s admiration, Lizza writes, “[Obama] was a natural, the undisputed master of agitation, who could engage a room full of recruiting targets in a rapid-fire Socratic dialogue, nudging them to admit that they were not living up to their own standards. As with the panhandler, he could be aggressive and confrontational. With probing, sometimes personal questions, he would pinpoint the source of pain in their lives, tearing down their egos just enough before dangling a carrot of hope that they could make things better.”

Sound familiar?

No wonder in Obama’s memoir, Dreams from My Father, he says that “Change won’t come from the top, I would say. Change will come from a mobilized grass roots. That’s what I’ll do. I’ll organize black folks. At the grass roots. For change.”

Saul Alinsky’s philosophical impact doesn’t stop with Obama. Hillary Clinton was so inspired by his vision that she wrote her college thesis on Alinsky, comparing him to the likes of Eugene Debs, Walt Whitman and Martin Luther King.

This past week, Newt Gingrich observed that Obama is following in the footsteps of Saul Alinsky. During yesterday’s White House Press Briefing, a reporter asked Jay Carney if this accusation had merit. Carney didn’t deny it but deflected the question, simply saying that “[Obama’s] experience in that field [of community organizing] obviously contributed to who he is today.”

We agree.

Despite Obama’s past efforts to alienate himself from Alinsky, let’s not forget what the son of the “great community organizer” said about Obama following the 2008 DNC Convention. In a letter to Boston Globe, L. David Alinsky said:

Barack Obama’s training in Chicago by the great community organizers is showing its effectiveness. It is an amazingly powerful format, and the method of my late father always works to get the message out and get the supporters on board. When executed meticulously and thoughtfully, it is a powerful strategy for initiating change and making it really happen. Obama learned his lesson well.

I am proud to see that my father’s model for organizing is being applied successfully beyond local community organizing to affect the Democratic campaign in 2008. It is a fine tribute to Saul Alinsky as we approach his 100th birthday.

Check out the transcript and video:

QUESTION: Newt Gingrich keeps saying on the campaign trail that the president’s vision comes from Saul Alinsky, the community organizer. I haven’t heard you asked about that. I’m wondering if you want to – is there some sort of portrait of him in the White House that people look up to? Or is this just some – is this BS basically?

MR. CARNEY: Have I said how much fun I had as a reporter covering Congress from 1996 to 1998? There was a certain bombast to it at the time, a lot of colorful things to cover.

But the president’s background as a community organizer is well documented in the president’s own books, so his experience in that field obviously contributed to who he is today. But his experience is a broad-based one that includes a lot of other areas in his life, so I’ll just leave it at that.