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But What Did He Do?

Barack Obama often quibbles with those who say his career in public life is short and his accomplishments slight. He frequently points to his time as a community organizer. But not even the New York Times can find evidence that he accomplished much in that job. The Times reports:

In recent days, Mr. Obama has imbued those years with even greater significance, invoking them last week as inspiration for his plan to deliver social services through religious organizations. He told a conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church on Saturday that as a community organizer he “let Jesus Christ into my life” and “I dedicated myself to discovering his truth and carrying out his works.” It is clear that the benefit of those years to Mr. Obama dwarfs what he accomplished. Mr. Kellman said that Mr. Obama had built the organization’s following among needy residents and black ministers, but “on issues, we made very little progress, nothing that would change poverty on the South Side of Chicago.”

In short, this experience made good material for his book (a third of the pages are devoted to this period in his life) but he didn’t do much. (Other than try to grab credit for a neighborhood effort on asbestos testing in public housing.)

It seems that Obama — whether as an author, community organizer or senator – has derived great attention and credit for his internal journeys of self-discovery, but left very little evidence of having accomplished much for others. It has been said many times that, to a greater degree than any previous major party presidential candidate, he lacks a record of leadership and accomplishment (national, public, or private sector). More than that, however, there is something almost eerie about a man who slides through life with praise for having been there, but has little to show for what he did. (He is truly putting to the test the Woody Allen adage that 90% of life is showing up.)

It is unclear why Obama’s imprint has been so slight. Was it not important for him to achieve concrete gains in his career, or was he always looking ahead to the next job? Did he not have the leadership skills? Or was he too conflict-adverse to push through ideas to a successful conclusion? (The pattern of tip-toeing around dicey issues, as John Edwards pointed out, was also apparent in Obama’s state senate career.) We don’t know. But if getting things done, impacting an organization and forcing action are what we expect and need from a president, Obama’s past offers little evidence as to how or if he can do that successfully once in office.

As Obama’s image as a messianic leader of New Politics fades, voters may begin to ask more mundane questions like: What has he done of significance? And what does he stand for? His answers to those questions will be illuminating, because at this point we just don’t know.



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