Monday, July 19, 2010

Obama's tips for the tea parties
What his community organizing can teach the conservative movement.
By Ambreen Ali
When he was a community organizer on Chicago's South Side, President Obama had something in common with the tea parties.

Like the conservative activists, Obama worked to build a grassroots movement of individuals who could work together to challenge those in power and bring about change.

"Change won't come from the top," he later wrote about the experience. "Change will come from a mobilized grassroots."

Obama's recounting of that time in his life in "Dreams from My Father" includes some lessons that apply to all sorts of advocates -- including tea partyers.

Here are five lessons we gleaned from the book:

Get to know your membership. Before Obama helped the community address job shortages and asbestos problems, he got to know the people in the neighborhood.

"Find out their self-interest," his boss told him. "That's why people become involved in organizing -- because they think they'll get something out of it."

The tea parties started in the midst of the recession. Many tea party activists, including prominent national leader Jenny Beth Martin , have suffered from financial distress.

Given their motivations, it makes sense that tea partyers came to D.C. in droves against the health care bill, which they feared would increase government spending and taxes at a time when Americans cannot afford that.

But they have been less active on immigration -- an issue some tea parties took up after Arizona passed its enforcement law but doesn't appear to resonate as much with the base.

Know your demands. One of the first issues Obama took on was jobs. He and other community activists succeeded in getting a job center opened on the South Side by carefully rehearsing their demands ahead of a meeting with city officials.

"I drove both myself and the leadership to exhaustion: preparing a script for the meeting, pushing hard for the other churches to send their people, developing a clear demand -- a job intake and training center in the Far South Side -- that we thought [the Mayor's Office of Employment and Training] could deliver," he wrote.

The office opened within six months and the mayor himself came to the ribbon cutting.

Tea parties had a clear message during the health care debate: kill the bill. Since then, some factions have focused on immigration while others turned to November's elections. There is a broad list of principles to which some, but not all, tea partyers subscribe.

The tea parties certainly have the numbers for a strong, grassroots movement, but lack of concrete, tangible goals may be holding it back from seeing results.

Anger should be leveraged and controlled. When Obama interviewed for his job as a community organizer, his boss, Marty, told him, "Anger's a requirement for the job. The only reason anybody decides to become an organizer. Well-adjusted people find more relaxing work."

But that same anger can also backfire. Obama writes about a meeting with a city director about asbestos in public housing buildings.

One activist was too aggressive, demanding a yes or no answer from the director and riling up the crowd. The official walked off stage and didn't offer the group any help.

Anger helped the tea parties during the health-care town halls last August. The activists got the media to focus on them and their message instead of that of the lawmakers trying to sell the bill.

But anger can also go too far. Lawmakers accused tea partyers of hurling racial epithets during the final days of the debate. Many politicians and reporters noted that the actions of a handful of individuals reflected poorly on the larger movement.

While some level of anger helps propel a movement forward, too much of it can overshadow the actual message.

Use the media for power. When Obama and the other activists didn't get straight answers from the city about the asbestos problems, they threatened to go to the press.

"A cover-up would generate as much publicity as the asbestos," Obama recalled. "Publicity would make my job easier."

Sure enough, officials were much more willing to address their concerns when the reporters arrived. Press coverage also brought new allies, including local councilmen and lawyers, into the fight.

Tea partyers can also use the press to their advantage, as they did during the town halls. Lawmakers had to acknowledge and meet with the activists once the tea parties got the public's attention.

Building a movement takes time. As a young, inexperienced activist, Obama occasionally chastised his peers for not accomplishing enough. When the city's mayor came to a local event, he got upset that people didn't use the opportunity to get a commitment from the mayor to attend an upcoming rally.

"You want everything to happen fast," one of his peers told him.

Obama learned the same lesson again when he tried to build a coalition of black pastors, which he described as "a slow process."

It has been little over a year since the tea parties began, not long for an activist movement. Others like the immigrant rights coalition have spent years trying to get their concerns addressed.

Though tea-party leaders are under a lot of pressure to keep up the momentum post health care, it will take them time to build a committed base of supporters and accomplish their goals of smaller government, fiscal responsibility, and individual liberty.

Ambreen Ali writes for

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